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Protecting Birds And Caribou From Drilling In The Arctic

By Alisa Opar

08 June, 2012

An unprecedented management plan for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska could help balance domestic oil production and conservation

The name National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska might conjure images of desolate oil fields dotted with derricks. In fact this 22.8-million acre reserve in the northwestern part of the state encompasses a spectacular mix of Arctic ecosystems and provides critical habitat for a rich array of wildlife, from beluga whales and polar bears to caribou and millions of migratory birds, including increasingly rare species like the yellow-billed loon.

The NPR-A, the largest tract of public land in the United States, also holds an estimated 896 million barrels of oil, according to a 2010 USGS analysis—one-tenth of previous estimates, and about the amount the country uses in six weeks. Yet despite its name, since the reserve from the Navy to the Interior Department 36 years ago, petroleum extraction is not its sole purpose. In 1976, Congress mandated that “maximum protection” be put in place for “surface values,” like wildlife and fish, to balance oil production, including identification of no-lease areas. It also authorized protections for “special areas,” or critical wildlife habitat.

Now, for the first time ever, the federal government is developing a comprehensive management plan for the entire reserve. The public comment period ends June 15. “From key oil and gas reserves, to the Teshekpuk and Western Arctic caribou herds, to the world-class breeding and nesting ground for numerous species of waterfowl, the NPR-A contains resources that must be considered and balanced in a way,” said BLM-Alaska State Director Bud Cribley. Making lands available for oil development while protecting sensitive areas is in line with the Obama administration’s strategy to “increase safe and responsible oil production here at home,” as the president said in a May 14 address. A balanced plan, conservationists say, will protect the most important wildlife areas while still allowing responsible energy development in other parts of the reserve.

The Bureau of Land Management’s plan lists four different options (pdf). They include Alternative A, making no changes; Alternative B, which would include the strongest protections for places critical to migratory birds, caribou, and marine mammals; Alternative C calls for far fewer protections and allows leasing in the Teshekpuk Lake goose molting habitat and the NPR-A’s caribou calving grounds; and Alternative D, opening up the entire area to oil and gas leasing.

Under Alternative B, the government would be able to lease 11 million acres, or 48 percent, of the lands for oil and gas drilling. At the same time, 15.5 million acres in five “Special Areas” would be largely off-limits to leasing. Recommendations would also be made to Congress to designate 12 Wild and Scenic Rivers, a classification that ensures that the waterways will be kept free-flowing.

“Many in the environmental realm feel that Alternative B is the best, most balanced approach,” says Suzanne Little, manager of Pew’s Western Lands Initiative who lives in Anchorage. “It provides plenty of opportunity for oil and gas development while putting in place protections for the most sensitive places.”

If selected, Alternative B would provide the strongest protection possible under the plan for Teshekpuk Lake, the largest lake north of Alaska’s Brooks Range. There tens of thousands of Pacific brants, white-fronted, snow, and Canada geese congregate and molt, and bar-tailed godwits raise their young and fatten up before making their remarkable 7,000-mile direct flight to New Zealand in the fall. Calving grounds for hundreds of thousands of caribou would be off-limits to leasing, too. And sensitive areas along the coasts of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, where belugas give birth in near-shore waters, walruses haul out, and polar bears rest, would be safeguarded. Such life rafts are becoming even more important as the sea ice these species depend on shrinks as the Arctic warms.

Meanwhile industry would like to see the entire reserve opened for leasing, as Alternative D calls for. “The alternatives offered in the IAP/EIS appear to refocus land management in NPR-A from multiple use to conservation, which is inconsistent with the primary purpose of the petroleum reserve,” the Alaska Resource Development Council, an association of oil and gas, mining, forest products, tourism and fisheries industries, maintains on its website. “This is unacceptable for an area intended for oil and gas development.”

Since the Reagan administration, the federal government has leased millions of acres to energy developers, while only protecting isolated areas temporarily. Environmentalists have focused on preventing drilling in the goose-molting and caribou calving grounds near Teshekpuk Lake—which might also hold the richest oil stores. In 2004, the George W. Bush administration sought to lease the area around Teshekpuk, triggering lawsuit from environmentalists. The result was a new management plan in 2008 that deferred any leasing on the most sensitive goose-molting wetlands until 2018.

“Teshekpuk Lake is an important bird area of global significance for various waterfowl, and it also has what is believed to be the highest density of shorebird nesting in the circumpolar Arctic,” says Eric Myers, Audubon Alaska’s policy director. Given the threat of potential oil development at Teshkepuk Lake, the region would benefit greatly from Alternative B. “[It] affords meaningful protection for the entire lake area, including waterfowl molting grounds. Under Alternative B no-lease protections would be expanded beyond critical waterfowl habitat to include the Teshekpuk caribou herd calving grounds.

Myers adds that the difference between the amount of oil potentially recovered under Alternative B, which conservationists support, and Alternative D, which the petroleum industry backs, is “essentially two weeks” at current consumption rates.

Furthermore, the USGS in 2010 drastically reduced its estimate of the NPR-A’s crude oil reserves from more than 10 billion barrels to less than 1 billion barrels—a 90 percent drop. As a nation, the U.S. uses about 19.15 million barrels each day. The NPR-A also holds an estimated 53 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, though no pipeline exists to transport it.

“The reserves in the NPR-A are not going to play a significant role in meeting our energy needs,” says Myers. “Why put at risk these regionally, nationally and globally sensitive areas and the wildlife that depend on them for a negligible amount of oil?”

The BLM is scheduled to issue its preferred alternative in November with a final decision this December.


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