Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has rescinded a 2017 Interior department order, under President Donald Trump, to expand acreage available for oil and gas leasing in the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve, or NPR-A, in northern Alaska. The Secretary issued her order April 16, affecting not only the petroleum reserve but federal offshore leasing, which does not affect Alaska, and a number of other actions under the Trump administration.
The 2017 order under Trump authorized a revised Integrated Activity Plan for the NPR-A, finalized in a federal Record of Decision in December, that would make about 18 million acres available for leasing. That’s up from approximately 13 million acres in the previous plan put in place in 2013 by former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell under President Barak Obama’s administration.
State officials studying the order said it’s unclear what immediate effects Haaland’s decision will have and whether it signals the Secretary’s intent to do a new land plan. That would involve a lengthy process and possibly a new National Environmental Policy Act assessment. Alternatively the Interior Department could place a hold on the new plan and attempt to put the previous 2013 plan back in effect, a course of action that might prompt lawsuits.
“What this tells us is that anything that is controversial and that was done under the Trump administration is under intense scrutiny by the new Biden administration,” said Sara Longan, deputy commissioner for oil and gas in Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources.
Alaska has a stake in NPR-A oil and gas development because the state receives petroleum production and property tax revenue from industry activity in the federal reserve as well as a 50 percent share of federal royalties under the 1976 National Petroleum Reserve Act passed by Congress.
The land plan developed by the Trump administration would have opened coastal areas in the northern parts of the reserve to petroleum leasing, which prompted criticism from conservation groups because those areas are prime wildlife habitat.
Haaland’s decision may have limited short-term effects because the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the Interior agency that manages NPR-A, had delayed a 2019 areawide lease sale that could have included areas opened under the new plan.
Longan also said that leases in northeast NPR-A where ConocoPhillips is developing its planned Willow project were issued under previous 2013 plan and are likely unaffected by Haaland’s April 16 order.
The Secretary’s action revoked several Secretarial Orders issued in recent years that are “inconsistent with the Interior Department’s commitment to protect public health; conserve land, water, and wildlife; and elevate science,” the department said in a press release.
“The new (April 16) Order does not impact the Interior Department’s ongoing review of proposals for oil, gas, coal, and renewable energy development on public lands and waters,” the department said.
The NPR-A was formed in 1923 as a naval petroleum reserve for the U.S. Navy but there was no significant exploration until after World War II. Despite significant drilling by the Navy and later the U.S. Geological Survey only two discoveries were made, a gas field near the Inupiat village of Barrow (now Utqiagvik) and that supplies gas to the community, and a small oil field at Umiat, in the far southeast part of NPR-A, that was not developed.
In recent years ConocoPhillips has made commercial discoveries in northeast NPR-A, including two medium-size fields. GMT-1, which is now producing, and GMT-2, expected to begin producing later this year. Willow, a larger discovery west of GMT-2, is now under construction and is expected to be producing in late 2025.