US removes half of Arctic reserve from drilling consideration | Polarjournal
For comparison, 13 US states areas occupy less space than the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (Map: Bureau of Land Management)

If there is one thing that conservations and those keen on exploiting more of Alaska’s oil reserves can agree on, it is that the decision by America’s federal authorities on Monday to halt oil and gas exploration in a large part of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, in the northernmost part of the state, is a half-empty glass.

The move by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) reinstates a management plan adopted in 2013 that put about half of the 95,000 square kilometre km reserve, including Teshekpuk Lake (pictured below), a large wetland area important to shorebirds, loons and caribou that was placed under federal protection during the Reagan administration, off limits to oil and gas drilling. In the parts of the reserve where drilling is to be permitted, firms will need to meet strict environmental guidelines.

The plan that will now go back into effect had been set aside in 2020 when the previous administration decided to expand the share of the reserve that was available for oil and gas drilling to 82%. As its name suggests, the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska was created as a drilling province, and the decision to make the new land available had energy companies looking forward to being able to expand their operations in the reserve, while the state saw their interest as an indication that slumping production — down 75% since its 1988 high of 2 million barrels a day — might be on the verge of a rebound.

Grounds for disagreement (Photo: Bob Wick / BLM)

No leases were ever put up for sale under that plan, however, and, after President Biden announced in November that the management plan he inherited upon taking office would be reviewed, it was widely expected that he would order the expansion to be reversed, For legal reasons, federal authorities must hold lease sales, with the next round due this summer, but those are on lands that were not added by the 2020 plan.

Monday’s decision, according to the BLM, reflects the administration’s priorities. That, conservationists bemoan, does not include a complete end to drilling in the reserve; indeed, while the 2013 plan did limit drilling in some areas, and added new protected areas, it expanded it in its southern and western reaches, as part of what the White House described as a way to accommodate conservationists and the oil and gas industry. That it satisfied neither side shows that they do not always disagree on everything.  

Kevin McGwin, Polar Journal

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