ANCHORAGE, Alaska, August 13, 2012 (ENS) – Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today proposed to allow additional oil and gas development in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, NPR-A. After two days of meetings with North Slope leaders, Salazar said the plan would protect the region’s caribou herds, migratory bird habitat, uplands, and sensitive coastal resources central to the culture and subsistence lifestyle of Alaska Natives.
“To harness the oil and gas potential of the NPR-A, we need a plan that will help the industry bring energy safely to market from this remote location, while also protecting wildlife and subsistence rights of Alaska Natives,” Salazar said on a teleconference with reporters today.
The 11.8 million acres that would be available for leasing under the preferred alternative, Alternative B-2, makes the vast majority of projected oil resources in the NPR-A available for leasing. The area that would be opened does not affect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is situated east of the area proposed for leasing.
The area available for leasing if this alternative is approved is estimated to hold roughly 549 million barrels of economically recoverable oil and some 8.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas – both discovered and undiscovered.
“This proposal would allow us to continue to expand our leasing in the NPR-A, as we have done over the last three years as part of the Obama Administration’s focus on expanding safe and responsible oil and gas development, and builds on our efforts to help companies develop the infrastructure that’s needed to bring supplies online,” Salazar said.
The preferred alternative identified today allows for a pipeline that would connect with existing lines to bring the oil to market. “There is an openness to have pipeline to cross the NPRA,” Salazar said. “This alternative does not foreclose a pipeline, which would be necessary to develop oil reserves in the Chukchi Sea.”
“This plan also strikes an important balance by recognizing the need to protect America’s treasures in the Arctic, from the raptors of the Colville River and the polar bears of the Beaufort Sea coast, to Teshekpuk Lake, Peard Bay, and some of the largest caribou herds on Earth,” he said.
The NPR-A is one of the Arctic’s greatest migratory bird nesting and molting areas and is the summer home for hundreds of thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds, including critical molting areas for up to 30 percent of the entire population of Pacific Flyway brant goose.
The NPR-A provides calving areas and insect relief areas for the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, Alaska’s largest herd at roughly 325,000 animals, and the 55,000 animal Teshekpuk Caribou Herd. These populations are a subsistence resource for over 40 northern and western Alaska Native villages.
The petroleum development plan will be analyzed in detail and presented for public review late this year as the preferred alternative for the NPR-A Integrated Activity Plan and Environmental Impact Statement, IAP/EIS.
The Draft IAP/EIS, released March 30, presented four future management alternatives for the NPR-A for public comment. More than 400,000 public comments were received.
The Final IAP/EIS will include Alternative B-2, a modified version of Alternative B, as the preferred alternative.
The release of the Final IAP/EIS starts a 30-day public review period before the secretary may issue a final decision.
“With its energy supplies, importance to Alaska Natives, and wildlife resources, it is vital that we continue to hear from the many stakeholders and the public as we work to strike the right management balance in the NPR-A,” acting Bureau of Land Management Director Mike Pool told reporters today.
“As the first integrated activity plan for the entire NPR-A, this will provide a roadmap to help facilitate the transition from leasing and cautious exploration to production and smart development,” said Pool.
Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams, who just returned from the Arctic, said, “Secretary Salazar’s announcement is heartening, and puts us one step closer to protecting globally important habitat in the Western Arctic’s National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. This landscape belongs to all Americans, and Secretary Salazar’s decision reflects that. It prevents oil and gas drilling in parts of the Reserve that are important ecologically and for subsistence, while allowing drilling in 11.8 million acres of the Reserve’s less sensitive areas.”
“Although the Bureau of Land Management’s preferred management strategy allows for the option of a pipeline to transport offshore oil to market, we are pleased that such a project could not pass through critical caribou habitat in the Teshekpuk Lake area,” Williams said. “The Administration is moving to find the right balance on lands within the NPR-A. Offshore in the Arctic, where there are no permanently protected areas, this balance is still lacking.”
Shell, the first oil company to be permitted for drilling in the Chukchi Sea, had planned to drill there this summer, but has not been able to meet the Interior Department’s new oil spill prevention requirements. The window of opportunity before ice freezes over the planned drilling area is rapidly closing.
Most of Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet is berthed in Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian islands. The company is awaiting completion of retrofits to its Arctic Challenger containment barge and U.S. Coast Guard certification of the reconfigured vessel.
Shell contractor Superior Energy is retrofitting the barge in Bellingham, Washington with a new containment system that would collect oil from a leaking wellhead in the event of a subsea well blowout similar to the BP/Deepwater Horizon blowout in 2010 that spilled some five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
After the Deepwater Horizon spill, the Interior Department updated its drilling safety and oil spill containment standards based on the recommendations of several expert investigative commissions.
Salazar said today, “It’s the necessary for Shell to be able to demonstrate that they can meet the environmental requirements we have put into place. The Deepwater Horizon is a stark reminder that the standards we have set forth to regulate ocean energy in America are standards that we believe in and standards that we will enforce.”
“I will hold their feet to the fire to make sure we are doing everything we can to abide by the standards and regulations we have set,” Salazar emphasized.
“Both the Beaufort and the Chukchi had more ice on them than in recent years,” he said after flying over the area this weekend. “The cause for the delay is not the ice, it’s if Shell has the capability to comply with government requirements.”
Several vessels from Shell’s fleet, including an icebreaker carrying the company’s new well capping stack, moved north from Dutch Harbor earlier this month to start drilling preparations at one of Shell’s Chukchi Sea sites.
Following President Barack Obama’s direction in May 2011 that annual oil and gas lease sales be conducted in the NPR-A, BLM offered three million acres in a lease sale last December that generated 17 winning bids covering more than 140,000 acres.
The agency will conduct another lease sale in the NPR-A this coming November.
To date, only exploratory drilling has occurred within the NPR-A, although last year, with the assistance of the President’s Interagency Working Group on Coordination of Domestic Energy Development and Permitting in Alaska, permits were issued to ConocoPhillips to allow for future production of oil and gas resources within the NPR-A.