Native Alaskans have teamed up with environmental forces to urge the Obama administration to stick with a conservative management plan for the National Petroleum Reserve, despite oil industry protests that the proposal would block energy development in lands specifically reserved for extracting fossil fuels.
Joseph Sagviyuaq Sage, a whaling captain from Barrow, Alaska, and Lillian Stone, a teacher from Anaktuvuk Pass, are set to meet with Senate staffers and Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes while in Washington, D.C. this week. The pair are collaborating with the Alaska Wilderness League to make the case that some areas in the 23-million acre reserve should be off limits to oil development.
The push comes as the administration nears a final decision on how to balance energy production and conservation in the 89-year-old reserve in northwest Alaska. In August, the Interior Department unveiled its “preferred” management plan, which would allow oil and gas development in 11.8 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska while blocking the activity in other areas that are home to caribou herds and polar bears.
The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management appears likely to make a final decision on whether to adopt its preferred approach sometime after the Nov. 6 presidential election.
Stone said she wanted policymakers in the nation’s capital to know “we are real people and we are directly impacted by any activity that goes on within NPR-A.” Oil drilling in the reserve threaten the caribou that roam the land, Stone said, as well as the Alaska Natives who hunt the animal for food and clothing.
Sage said he feared that traffic and other activity tied to oil drilling in the reserve could jeopardize the animals of Alaska’s North Slope that calve and breed in parts of NPR-A.
“That impacts the whole North Slope,” Sage said. “It takes a toll especially on hunters because we spend so much money trying to get out there and hunt the animals we have lived off for years.”
Native Alaskans in the northwest part of the state are fiercely proud of their subsistence way of life; for generations, they have lived off caribou, whale, seal, fish and other animals. And the spoils of those hunts unite the entire North Slope of Alaska, Sage stressed, as whale and seal meat harvested along the coast is traded for caribou meat from inland villages.
According to the Interior Department, an estimated 549 million barrels of economically recoverable oil and 8.7 trillion cubic feet of economically recoverable natural gas lurk in the areas that would be available for oil and gas leasing under the chosen plan.
But oil industry representatives have warned that the Interior Department’s preferred plan could restrict development in promising areas — and hamper their ability to send extracted oil and gas to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System on the North Slope.
A major concern is whether regulators could sign off on any future proposal to build a pipeline linking any production wells in the Chukchi Sea with TAPS _ something Shell and other oil companies planning to drill in the area have said is key for sending that crude to the lower 48 states.
Although Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has insisted that the government’s preferred NPR-A management plan would allow such a pipeline, it could be more difficult to place and build. For instance, the plan would prevent any pipelines from passing through Teshekpuk Lake, which is home to caribou, and Kasegaluk Lagoon, one likely spot for a pipeline to come ashore.
That rules out a direct coastal route between the Chukchi Sea off northwest Alaska and TAPS’ pump station No. 1 in Prudhoe Bay, noted Richard Ranger, a senior policy adviser for the American Petroleum Institute.
Even though pipelines aren’t explicitly barred in much of the reserve under the administration’s preferred plan, oil and gas drilling would be off limits in 13.35 million acres. Some industry representatives fear the same arguments for blocking oil drilling in those areas ultimately could be used to prevent pipelines and other infrastructure from being built in them.
“They clearly have used language that would indicate a pipeline is allowed,” Ranger said, but it’s simply not strong enough to give assurances going forward. “The fact that a lot of this land is proposed for withdrawal for exploration doesn’t leave us with a warm fuzzy that at a project execution and permit consideration stage later, the language employed . . . would not be used by adversaries (against) a pipeline route.”
Alaska’s two senators and oil industry allies in Congress have complained that the Interior Department’s preferred plan is too restrictive.
In a Fairbanks Daily News opinion piece earlier this month, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, complained of a “bait and switch” by the coalition of environmental activists and Democratic politicians that long fought oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
“They frequently pointed to the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska in the northwest corner of the state as a preferable location for drilling. This, they argued, would protect the coastal plan of ANWR,” Murkowski wrote. “But now that the focus has actually swung to the NPR-A, this same obstructionist alliance is supporting a plan to greatly restrict oil and gas exploration in the petroleum reserve.”
The NPR-A was established nearly a century ago as a potential oil resource for America’s Navy. But development has been slow, in part because of logistical and legal hurdles to launching activity even on leased acreage in the refuge.
The Interior Department is set to auction off drilling leases in the reserve on Nov. 7, with as many as 4.5 million acres and 400 tracts up for grabs.