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U.S. Authorizes Drilling, Pipelines in Alaska National Petroleum Reserve

The Interior Department has finalized plans to lease to natural gas and oil operators nearly 12 million acres -- more than half -- of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A), which would allow, among other things, pipelines to be built to transport offshore Chukchi and Beaufort seas production.

The reserve covers 23 million acres and access to producers would be allowed on 11.8 million acres that are hold recoverable reserves estimated at 8.7 Tcf of natural gas and 549 million bbl of oil.

The plan, detailed in the Final Integrated Activity Plan and Final Environmental Impact Statement (Final IAP/EIS) for the NPR-A, is the first to cover the entire reserve, including 9.2 million acres in the southwest area. Previous plans covered the northeast and northwest planning areas only. The new plan provides "explicit confirmation" that potential pipes would be able to carry oil and natural gas through the reserve, said outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. He signed the record of decision (ROD) on Thursday.

"The balanced approach under this plan is the result of extensive local input and will help guide the responsible production and transport of the substantial oil and gas resources in and around the Reserve," said Salazar. "This comprehensive plan will allow us to continue to expand our leasing in the NPR-A, as has happened over the last three years, while protecting the outstanding and unique resources that are critically important to the culture and subsistence lifestyle of Alaska Natives and our nation's conservation heritage."

Interior in August had released details of the preferred alternative plan, and the Final IAP/EIS was issued in December (see Daily GPI, Dec. 21, 2012). Salazar's sign-off was anticipated.

The ROD addresses two key issues that Salazar had identified for special attention when the proposed plan was issue, the first being potential pipeline access. The ROD makes all lands along the Chukchi Sea coast, most of the lands along the Beaufort Sea coast, and other lands available for "a wide range of route options for pipelines and other infrastructure that would support offshore development."

Second, following additional consultations with North Slope communities, the ROD requires Interior's Bureau of Land Management to establish an NPR-A Working Group with representatives from North Slope tribal entities, Native corporations and local governments. The group would provide input on the "full range of management issues and possible future development in the NPR-A, including pipelines and related oil and gas infrastructure development," Interior said. It also would be a forum to gather additional scientific information and traditional knowledge about wildlife populations and needs to inform "potential adjustments to the boundaries of special areas..."

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski in December had criticized the Final IAP/EIS. The state's Democratic Sen. Mark Begich said he was "pleased with the clear confirmation to allow pipeline construction to safely and economically carry offshore oil and gas from the Chukchi and Beaufort seas," but said he "remained disappointed" with Interior's final decision, citing the dismissal of local stakeholder comments.

"When a local community comes together on land use decisions that affect their daily lives and their future, Washington needs to listen," said Begich. "I'm far from convinced they have listened so far and the jury is still out on whether they will...Despite their claims, it is clear the Interior Department yet again has made a decision about Alaska land use that ignores what Alaskans want...As Elvis Presley said, we need `a little less conversation and a little more action.'"

The plan is "another game of smoke and mirrors," said Alaska GOP Rep. Don Young. Interior is touting a plan to allow pipelines through the reserve but the potential routes don't appear realistic, he said. "The Department of Interior has once again caved to environmental special interest groups, and unfortunately [the] finalized plan will do nothing but further restrict potential oil and gas development in a petroleum reserve established to ensure America's energy security."

The reserve is home to an estimated 325,000 animals in the western Arctic caribou heard and 55,000 animals in the Teshekpuk caribou herd. Hunters from 40 Alaska Native villages rely on the caribou as a subsistence resource. The plan expands the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area but continues restrictions on development near habitat for migratory waterfowl. It also creates the Peard Bay Special Area and enlarges the Utukok River Uplands Special Area, which increases special areas in the reserve to 13.35 million acres from a previous 8.3 million acres.

Begich said Interior had ignored a request from the village of Nuiqsut, which is within the reserve, to include more area south of Teshekpuk Lake for leasing.

"No one disputes the importance of Teshekpuk Lake to waterfowl and caribou, but I think we should listen most closely to those who live there and depend on both these critical subsistence resources as well as the economic opportunity resource development can bring," Begich said.

Reaction from conservation groups mostly was positive. Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams said the plan was a "fair and thoughtful decision that balances conservation, Alaska Natives' needs for subsistence resources, and the nation's demand for energy." The Pew Charitable Trusts Executive Vice President Joshua Reichert called it the Obama administration's "crowning land conservation accomplishment to date."

However, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) said the decision did not provide enough protections. "Like most things Obama, this plan is better than the Bush-era plan it replaces but far short of what we need in terms of both energy policy and protection of our most sensitive wildlands," said CBD attorney Brendan Cummings. "In an era of dangerous climate change, we simply should not be opening up any of our public lands to fossil fuel development."

The ROD and related documents are available online and a notice is to be published in the Federal Register.

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