WASHINGTON – The Trump administration is taking its first steps toward expanding oil and natural gas drilling in an area roughly the size of Indiana in the Alaskan Arctic.
The Interior Department is ready to abandon a management plan put in place under Barack Obama for the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, or the NPR-A.
Joe Balash, assistant secretary of land and minerals at Interior, said that in light of “some exciting new discoveries” as well as “advances in drilling technology,” the Trump administration wanted to open up more acreage in the reserve to drilling.
“We think it’s time to re-evaluate some of the areas that were previously left unavailable for leasing,” Balash said in a call, according to a recording of the call obtained by the Washington Post. He added that it will take “about a year” to develop a new plan for managing the petroleum reserve after publishing a notice Tuesday.
The move is in line with other attempts under President Donald Trump to expand fossil-fuel extraction nationwide, whether by trying to revitalize coal mining in the Appalachia mountains or offshore drilling in the Pacific Ocean.
When it comes to onshore oil development, Alaska has been a main locus of that push. And unlike efforts to boost coal mining or offshore drilling, Trump has seen significant success in the nation’s northernmost state.
The Republican tax bill signed by Trump nearly one year ago mandated oil and gas lease sales in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is to the east of the petroleum reserve. For decades, environmentalists successfully fought to keep a coastal tract of relatively untouched wilderness there full of caribou and polar bears free from energy development. By opening up the refuge to leasing, Trump succeeded where George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush tried and fell short.
As its name suggests, Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve was originally earmarked for eventual oil extraction. In 1923, President Warren G. Harding set aside the area over oil supply concerns as the U.S. Navy started burning oil to power its ships.
But as time passed, scientists and conservationists began to recognize the area’s ecological importance, particularly to migratory waterfowl. Working with subsistence hunters in Alaska and environmentalists in the Lower 48, the Obama administration put half of the petroleum reserve, or about 11 million acres, off-limits to oil drilling.
Environmentalists like Mark Salvo, vice president of landscape conservation at the Defenders of Wildlife, criticized the Trump administration for throwing out a management plan that took years to make. Interior similarly is trying to scrap wildlife management plans for the Mojave Desert in California and for sagebrush habitat through much of the rest of the western United States, Salvo noted.
“These are examples of the Trump administration stealing defeat from the jaws of victory,” he said. “These plans took years to produce and tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer resources to arrive at these carefully crafted compromises to conserve public lands.”
Alaska’s oil and gas industry, which originally balked at the Obama-era decision, praised the Trump administration for aiming to reverse it.
“There have been recent discoveries in the NPR-A and adjacent state land that suggests it may be a more prolific area for oil and gas development,” said Kara Moriarty, president and chief executive of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.
Last year the U.S. Geological Survey, Interior’s main scientific arm, reassessed the reserve and estimated that it and the state and tribal areas around it contain 8.7 billion barrels of oil and 25 trillion cubic feet of gas. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had ordered the survey after ConocoPhillips announced a promising oil discovery in the refuge earlier in 2017.
But a lease sale in NPR-A last December got only seven bids for less than 1 percent of the area offered.
Now the Trump administration is suggesting the land it is considering unlocking will garner more attention from oil and gas developers.
Of particular interest to the oil industry and concern to wildlife conservationists is Teshekpuk Lake and the surrounding area. It plays host to half a million shorebirds and tens of thousands of molting geese that groups like the Audubon Society worry will be affected by oil operations.
Balash, the Trump land management official, told reporters the department’s geologists believe the area around the lake is “extremely prospective” due to the volume of oil underneath it. But in the same breath, he recognized the needle the department must thread between not only the interests of wildlife conservationists but Native Alaskans.
“The big question is: Can we make some of that acreage available in a manner that is responsible and honors the subsistence way of life that the people who live in the NPR-A have lived for thousands of years?” Balash said.