12/11/2018 - Regulatory Tracker

Oil and Gas Development in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve

by EELP Staff

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Why It Matters

The National Petroleum Reserve is the nation’s largest block of public land encompassing over 22 million acres in northern Alaska. The name is slightly deceptive – much of the reserve is protected from oil and gas development because of its significant environmental value, with Congress requiring “maximum protections” for the Utukok River, the Teshekpuk Lake area, and other lands with significant subsistence, recreational, fish and wildlife, or historical or scenic value.

Over the years, approximately half of the reserve has been designated as available for oil and gas leasing. The remaining lands, most recently around 11 million acres, have remained protected from such activities. In particular, the Teshekpuk Lake area on Alaska’s north slope is one of the most important wetlands in the arctic – supporting tens of thousands of geese, the Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd, and other wildlife. Millions of acres in the southwestern portion of the reserve also provide important calving locations and migration routes for caribou herds.

Current Status

Under President Trump, the Department of the Interior (DOI) aggressively promoted expansive leasing and development in the reserve, including conducting multiple lease sales between 2017 and 2020. On Jan. 4, 2020, the administration opened nearly 18.6 million acres of formerly protected lands to leasing and development, including parts of the Teshekpuk Lake area. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) also approved ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project on Oct. 27, 2020, which would produce more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day over the next 30 years. Multiple groups sued, arguing that BLM failed to adequately assess the project’s environmental impacts.

While President Biden has supported efforts to limit oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the administration continues to defend the Willow Project in court. Though President Biden ordered the DOI to review the project’s Record of Decision, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a brief in support of the project on May 26, arguing that the Trump administration complied with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other environmental laws in approving the project. However, the Ninth Circuit has blocked ConocoPhillips from breaking ground on the Willow Project until the litigation is over.

Timeline of Events

Obama administration
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Oct. 23, 2012 BLM publishes a final Integrated Activity Plan and Environmental Impact Statement for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. This plan establishes a land use and management plan for the federal lands within the National Petroleum Reserve.

Feb. 21, 2013 Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar signs the Record of Decision, officially adopting the Integrated Activity Plan and Environmental Impact Statement for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Under BLM’s plan, approximately 11 million acres are protected from development, whereas nearly 12 million acres are available for oil and gas leasing. The plan expands or creates multiple “special areas,” including the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area. Oil and gas infrastructure, such as pipelines, is allowed on 14 million acres and may traverse portions of the special areas. Permanent structures are prohibited in certain areas, including the 7.3 million acres in the southwest that are essential for calving and summer migration of caribou. The plan also establishes best management practices and monitoring requirements for oil and gas activities.

Trump Administration
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May 31, 2017 Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke signs Secretarial Order 3352 “to jump-start Alaskan energy production….” The order directs the agency to review and revise the 2013 Integrated Activity Plan and to evaluate methods to maximize the land available during the next lease sale. It also calls for a plan to reassess the oil and gas resources available in Alaska’s North Slope, including the National Petroleum Reserve and Section 1002 in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. For more information on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, see EELP’s post here.

Oct. 25, 2017 BLM announces it will make available 900 tracts of land for oil and gas leasing. These tracts constitute the entire 10.3 million acres available for leasing, and the offer was the largest in history. By comparison, fewer than 1.5 million acres were offered in the 2016 lease sale.

Feb. 2, 2018 Two coalitions of environmental organizations file similar lawsuits with the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska challenging BLM’s lease sales. Both coalitions argue that BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act. One complaint alleges that BLM failed to analyze the environmental impacts of the 2017 lease sale, Northern Alaska Environmental Center et al. v. U.S. Department of the Interior, Docket No. 3:18-cv-00030-SLG.  The second complaint alleges that BLM acted unlawfully during the 2016 and 2017 lease sales by not considering the climate impacts of oil and gas development and by not properly assessing alternative lease plans, Natural Resources Defense Council et al. v. Zinke, Docket No. 3:18-cv-00031.

Nov. 9, 2018 BLM announces that it will offer 2.85 million acres for oil and gas development in its 2018 lease sale.

Nov. 21, 2018 BLM publishes a Notice of Intent to prepare a new Integrated Activity Plan and Environmental Impact Statement. This action initiates the scoping period for the plan, which will inform BLM’s decision to allow more oil and gas development in the National Petroleum Reserve. The Bureau is seeking comments on: which additional areas within the National Petroleum Reserve should be available for oil and gas leasing; how to manage those leases; whether the boundaries of the protected areas should be adjusted; and what resources should be addressed in the plan. Comments can be submitted online until January 7, 2019.

Dec. 6, 2018 Judge Sharon Gleason for the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska rules against the environmental organizations and upholds BLM’s lease sales.

Dec. 10, 2018 BLM schedules eight public meetings to discuss a new Integrated Activity Plan (IAP) and associated Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska.

Dec. 12, 2018 BLM holds a lease sale for the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A).

Dec. 13, 2018 BLM reschedules four public meetings on the new NPR-A IAP and EIS that had been postponed due to an earthquake.

Feb. 15, 2019 the extended scoping comment period ends. BLM begins writing the draft environmental impact statement for the NPR-A.

Nov. 5, 2019 BLM announces that it will hold a lease sale of almost 4 million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska on December 11.

Nov. 21, 2019 BLM releases the draft Integrated Activity Plan and Environmental Impact Statement for oil and gas development in the NPR-A. The draft proposes four options for oil and gas development: (A) maintaining the status quo with 11.8 million acres available for leasing; (B) decreasing the land available to 11.4 million acres but allowing for oil and gas transportation through the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area; (C) increasing the land available to 17.1 million acres (75% of the NPR-A), allowing oil and gas transportation through Teshekpuk Lake Special Area but leaving unavailable to leasing “a core area” around Teshekpuk Lake; and (D) making available 18.3 million acres of land (81% of the NPR-A), including the entire Teshekpuk Lake area as well as portions of the Utukok River uplands. The comment period is open until Jan. 21, 2020 (extended to Feb. 5th) and comments may be submitted here.

Jan. 4, 2019 Environmental groups in Alaska appeal their case against BLM’s lease sales to the Ninth Circuit, renewing their argument that BLM did not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”). NAEC v. DOI, BLM, No. 19-35008 (9th Cir.).

Feb. 7, 2020 The 9th Circuit hears oral argument in the case challenging BLM’s lease sales. NAEC v. DOI, BLM, No. 19-35008 (9th Cir.).

June 26, 2020 BLM releases the final Integrated Activity Plan and Environmental Impact Statement for oil and gas development in the NPR-A. BLM’s final plan would allow leasing on 18.7 million more acres of land, which means opening 82% of the NPR-A to leasing. This final plan opens more land to leasing and protects fewer acres from permanent infrastructure development than any of the alternatives BLM included in its draft plan. The entire Teshekpuk Lake Special Area will be available for leasing.

July 9, 2020 The Ninth Circuit finds that BLM did not violate the National Environmental Policy Act by relying on its 2012 Environmental Impact Statement for the NPR-A to conduct lease sales in 2017. NAEC v. DOI, BLM, No. 19-35008 (9th Cir.).

Aug. 24, 2020 Two coalitions of environmental organizations file lawsuits challenging the sufficiency of the Final Environmental Impact Statement for oil and gas leasing in the NPR-A. Northern Alaska Environmental Center v. Bernhardt, Docket No.3:20-cv-00207 (D. Alaska) and National Audubon Society v. Bernhardt, Docket No.3:20-cv-00206 (D. Alaska).

Oct. 1, 2020 The United States District Court for the District of Alaska grants motions to stay proceedings in both cases pending BLM’s release of its Record of Decision for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska Integrated Activity Plan Final Environmental Impact Statement. Northern Alaska Environmental Center v. Bernhardt, Docket No.3:20-cv-00207; National Audubon Society v. Bernhardt, Docket No.3:20-cv-00206.

Oct. 27, 2020 BLM approves ConocoPhillip’s Willow Project in the NPR-A, slated to produce 590 million barrels of oil over 30 years. The project will use thermosiphons (“chillers”) to keep permafrost frozen near the project’s drill pads. According to the final EIS, global warming will cause temperatures on Alaska’s North Slope to increase by 10 to 12 degrees F by the end of the century if global greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase.

Nov. 17, 2020 Indigenous and environmental groups sue BLM and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), arguing that the agencies failed to adequately consider the environmental and public health risks of ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project, which “may be highly adverse and disproportionately borne by the Nuiqsut population.” Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic v. BLM, No. 3:20-cv-00290 (D. Alaska).

Nov. 22, 2020 BLM publishes the Record of Decision (ROD) for the final EIS for the Willow Master Development Plan.

Dec. 21, 2020 Environmental groups file suit in the District Court for the District of Alaska arguing that BLM’s final EIS violates NEPA by failing to consider reasonable alternatives and failing to accurately account for the project’s greenhouse gas emissions. Center for Biological Diversity et al. v. Bernhardt et al. [No. pending] (D. Alaska).

Dec. 22, 2020 The Ninth Circuit rejects environmental groups’ request that the court reconsider a district court’s ruling that BLM complied with NEPA when it approved ConocoPhillip’s Willow Project in the NPR-A. Northern Alaska Environmental Center v. Bernhardt, No. 3:18-cv-00030 (9th Cir.).

Jan. 4, 2020 The Department of the Interior opens millions of formerly protected acres in the NPR-A to oil and gas development.

Jan. 19, 2021 Secretary Bernhardt rescinds protections on 9.7 million acres of public lands between the NPR-A and the Chukchi Sea. The land had been withdrawn from mining claims as well as oil and gas leasing. Absent action from the Biden administration, the lands “shall be open to all forms of appropriation” on Feb. 18.

Biden Administration
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Jan. 20, 2021 The Department of the Interior temporarily suspends all onshore oil and gas leasing, with limited exceptions, for 60 days. President Biden also requires DOI to review the ROD for the Willow Project, via Executive Order.

Feb. 6, 2021 The District Court for the District of Alaska issues an order enjoining (blocking) ConocoPhillips from breaking ground on the Willow Project, including road construction. The order is effective until Feb. 20, 2021 or until the Ninth Circuit rules on plaintiffs’ notices of appeal (whichever is first). Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, et al., v. BLM, No. 3:20-cv-00290 (D. Alaska); Center for Biological Diversity v. BLM, No. 3:20-cv-00308 (D. Alaska).

Feb. 13, 2021 The Ninth Circuit blocks ConocoPhillips from breaking ground on the Willow Project for the duration of the lawsuit, granting plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction. In its order, the court agrees that plaintiffs are likely to experience irreparable harm if construction is allowed to continue, and finds that plaintiffs are likely to succeed on at least one of their NEPA claims if those claims are found to be timely. Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, et al., v. BLM, No. 21-35085 (9th Cir.).

May 6, 2021 The District Court for the District of Alaska rules that the State of Alaska can intervene to defend the approval of the Willow Project. The state argued that Alaska has a “unique sovereign interest” in promoting the development of the state’s natural resources. Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, et al., v. BLM, No. 3:20-cv-00290 (D. Alaska); Center for Biological Diversity v. BLM, No. 3:20-cv-00308 (D. Alaska).

May 26, 2021 The Biden DOJ files a brief in support of the Willow Project, arguing that the Trump administration complied with NEPA, the CWA, and the ESA in approving the project. Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic v. BLM, No. 3:20-cv-00290 (D. Alaska).

June 1, 2021 The Fish and Wildlife Service publishes a proposed rule to authorize incidental takes by harassment of polar bears and Pacific walruses in the Beaufort Sea and North Coast, including land designated for the Willow Project. The rule would not affect land inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.