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Oil and Gas Development in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve

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Quick Take

The Biden administration reversed the Trump administration’s decision to open much of the NPR-A to oil and gas development and added new protections in a final rule issued April 19, 2024.

The Department of the Interior released a final decision approving the Willow Project on March 13, 2023Interior’s final decision allows ConocoPhillips to develop three of the five proposed drill sites and associated infrastructure. Tribal and environmental groups sued, and litigation is currently pending before the Ninth Circuit.

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. Currently, around 11 million acres are protected from oil and gas activities, including the Teshekpuk Lake area. This 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. In Dec. 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 Biden administration reversed course on Apr. 25, 2022, when BLM issued a Record of Decision returning to the NPR-A’s 2013 management plan, in which just over half of the reserve is open to oil and gas leasing excluding the Teshekpuk Lake area. On April 19, 2024, BLM finalized updates to the agency’s regulations for managing the NPR-A, barring new oil and gas development on 11 million acres in the NPR-A, adding new requirements for leasing proposals on the remaining 11.8 million acres, and requiring BLM to consider Indigenous Knowledge for designating new “special areas”.

Under President Trump, 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. Under President Biden, the administration defended the Willow Project in court, arguing that the Trump administration complied with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other environmental laws in approving the project. A federal court vacated the project’s permits finding multiple flaws in the Trump administration’s NEPA review, and the Biden DOJ declined to appeal the district court’s decision, meaning the project could not move forward until federal agencies complete a new environmental review and grant new permits granted. BLM issued a final supplemental EIS on Jan. 31, 2023, and a final record of decision (ROD) on March 13, 2023. The ROD authorizes ConocoPhillips to develop three of the five proposed drill sites, though the company must still seek approval for individual permits, including permits to drill and associated rights-of-way. Tribal and environmental groups sued, and litigation is currently pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

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 Refuge. For more information on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 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. 12, 2018 BLM holds a lease sale for the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A).

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.).

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.

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., 2020 The Department of the Interior issues a final Record of Decision (ROD) opening millions of formerly protected acres in the NPR-A to oil and gas development.

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. 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.

Aug. 18, 2021 A federal judge vacates permits for ConocoPhillips’s Willow Project, stating that the federal government’s NEPA review failed to fully account for the project’s climate impacts, failed to provide adequate protection for the Teshekpuk Lake special area, and didn’t specify how polar bears would be protected. Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic v. BLM, No. 3:20-cv-00290 (D. Alaska); Center for Biological Diversity v. BLM, No. 3:20-cv-00308 (D. Alaska).

Oct. 19, 2021 The Biden DOJ declines to appeal the district court’s decision, meaning the project cannot move forward until a new environmental review is completed and new permits granted by BLM and FWS. Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic v. BLM, No. 3:20-cv-00290 (D. Alaska); Center for Biological Diversity v. BLM, No. 3:20-cv-00308 (D. Alaska).

Jan. 10, 2022 BLM announces a plan to return to the 2013 NPR-A Integrated Activity Plan, which allows for drilling in 52% of the National Petroleum Reserve. Under the 2013 Plan, the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area would be closed to oil and gas leasing.

Feb. 2, 2022 BLM announces a 30-day public comment period to solicit input on the proper scope and content of the agency’s supplemental EIS for the Willow Project. The SEIS is being prepared to address deficiencies in the October 2020 Master Development Plan, FEIS, and ROD identified by the District Court for the District of Alaska.

Feb 9, 2022 BLM defends its decision to approve new oil and gas exploration in the Peregrine oil prospect in the NPR-A. The area has the potential to produce 1.6 billion barrels of oil. Under President Trump, BLM approved plans from Australian company 88 Energy to drill an appraisal well, Merlin 2, in December, 2020. On Aug. 25, 2022, a coalition of environmental groups file suit in the District Court for the District of Alaska arguing that BLM violated NEPA by failing to adequately assess the project’s climate impacts. Sierra Club, et al., v. BLM, et al., No. 3:22-cv-00189 (D. Alaska).

March 8, 2022 ConocoPhillips discovers a gas leak at its Alpine oil and gas development on the North Slope. The leak resulted from drilling a waste disposal well; the company had not put in a cement barrier around the well casing because it did not expect to find oil or gas. The leak has led to the temporary evacuation of hundreds of personnel. On Apr. 6, 2022, ConocoPhillips announces that the gas leak released an estimated 7.2 million cubic feet of natural gas before it was contained by redirecting the fugitive gas into the existing pipeline.

April 25, 2022 BLM issues a Record of Decision (ROD) reinstating the 2013 NPR-A integrated management plan. The plan allows leasing in up to 52% of the NPR-A for oil and gas exploration, and reinstates protections for areas of particular environmental significance, including the Teshekpuk Lake Area. This decision reverses the Trump-era plan to allow leasing in up to 82% of the reserve. 

July 8, 2022 BLM releases the draft Supplemental EIS for the Willow Project. BLM is accepting comments on the analysis until Aug. 29, 2022, after which BLM will issue a final SEIS and decide whether to approve or disapprove the Willow Master Development Plan (MDP). A prior version of the draft SEIS and a biological assessment from BLM issued in June 2022 both identified alternative E as the “preferred alternative”, but BLM has since stated it has no preferred alternative. Under alternative E, one of the five proposed drill sites would be cut and another deferred to avoid critical habitat for polar bears, migrating birds and caribou herds in the Teshekpuk Lake Area.

Nov. 28, 2022 Environmental organizations challenge BLM’s 2020 final EIS for the NPR-A Integrated Activity Plan and subsequent decisions relying on the EIS. The complaint alleges that the EIS violates NEPA by failing to adequately analyze alternatives to planned future lease sales and the effects of those sales on climate change. On Sep. 14, 2023, the District Court for the District of Alaska denies motions to dismiss from BLM and Intervenor-Defendant State of Alaska. Nat’l Audubon Soc’y et al. v. Haaland, No. 3:20-cv-00206 (D. Alaska).

Jan. 31, 2023 Interior releases the final supplemental EIS for the Willow Project. The agency’s preferred alternative (Alternative E) would allow ConocoPhillips to proceed with three of the five proposed drill sites, with the option to consider a fourth drill site at a later date. The selected alternative would produce 9,268 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, with an estimated social cost of nearly $39 billion (based on total gross domestic direct and indirect emissions). The preferred alternative shrinks the project’s overall footprint to avoid impacts on nearby wildlife habitat, but includes a new gravel mine, airstrip, 570 miles of ice roads and 320 miles of pipeline. Interior publishes the supplemental EIS in the Federal Register on Feb. 6, 2023, and will issue the final record of decision (ROD) on whether to allow the project to proceed sometime after March 8, 2023.

March 12, 2023 President Biden withdraws approximately 2.8 million acres of the Beaufort Sea from oil and gas leasing under his authority under Section 12(a) of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA). The withdrawn area is adjacent to the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area. For a map of the 2023 withdrawal area, click here.

March 13, 2023 BLM issues a final record of decision (ROD) for the Willow Project, approving development of three of the five proposed drill sites. This decision is a variation of Alternative E identified in the final supplemental EIS, in that BLM will not allow the consideration of a fourth site at a later date. The approved project also includes associated infrastructure, including a processing facility, a natural gas-fired power plan, operations center, airstrip, and gravel roads. In its press release, Interior notes that ConocoPhillips will relinquish rights to 68,000 acres of existing leases in the NPR-A, including 60,000 acres in the Teshekpuk Lake Area. Interior also plans to issue a proposed rule to “achieve maximum protections” for Special Areas in the NPR-A, including the Teshekpuk Lake Area.

April 3, 2023 The District Court for the District of Alaska denies tribal and environmental groups’ request for an injunction to block ConocoPhillips from starting construction on the Willow Project. Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, et al., v. BLM et al., No. 3:23-cv-00058-SLG (D. Alaska); Center for Biological Diversity, et al., v. BLM et al., No. 3:23-cv-00061-SLG (D. Alaska). The Ninth Circuit consolidates plaintiffs’ appeals and denies their motions for injunctive relief pending appeal on April 19. The Circuit court also grants motions by the Alaska Congressional Delegation and the Alaska State Legislature to file an amicus brief in support of the project. Opening briefs and excerpts of record are due May 2, 2023. Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, et al., v. BLM et al., No. 23-35226 (9th Circuit). On July 26, 2023 the plaintiffs moved for summary judgment. Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, et al., v. BLM et al., No. 3:23-cv-00058-SLG (D. Alaska); Center for Biological Diversity, et al., v. BLM et al., No. 3:23-cv-00061-SLG (D. Alaska).

Sep. 6, 2023 BLM proposes a new rule to update and revise the management framework for surface resources within the NPR-A, and add protections and access provisions related to subsistence harvesting. This framework was last updated 45 years ago. The proposal would implement statutory changes that post-date the current rules, incorporate elements of the 2022 Integrated Activity Plan (IAP), integrate Indigenous Knowledge, update protections for designated Special Areas, and address changing conditions in the NPR-A due to climate change. 

Oct. 30, 2023 ConocoPhillips requestes a permit for a seismic survey to examine oil and gas reservoirs within the Willow Project development area (the “Ptarmigan Seismic Survey Program area”). BLM published the Environmental Assessment (EA) of the proposed seismic survey on Nov. 9, 2023

Nov. 8, 2023 The District Court for the District of Alaska dismissed claims brought by environmental and Alaska Native groups challenging the approval of the Willow Project. In a consolidated opinion, the court rejected claims that DOI should have considered less intensive alternative project designs, stating such alternatives would be “inconsistent with the Congressional policy objective of resource extraction in the NPR-A.” Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, et al., v. BLM et al., No. 3:23-cv-00058-SLG (D. Alaska); Center for Biological Diversity, et al., v. BLM et al., No. 3:23-cv-00061-SLG (D. Alaska).

Nov. 14, 2023 Environmental and Alaska Native groups appealed the District Court for the District of Alaska’s dismissal of their claims to the Ninth Circuit. On Nov. 15, 2023, the groups also filed a motion at the district court for an injunction to block construction on the project pending appeal. On Dec. 1, 2023, the district court denied that motion. Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, et al., v. BLM et al., No. 3:23-cv-00058-SLG (D. Alaska); Center for Biological Diversity, et al., v. BLM et al., No. 3:23-cv-00061-SLG (D. Alaska). The appeals were docketed as Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, et al. v. United States Bureau of Land Management, et al., No. 23-3627 (9th Cir.) and Center for Biological Diversity, et al. v. BLM, et al., No. 23-3624 (9th Cir.). The Court of Appeals consolidated the cases sua sponte on Dec. 18, 2023 under Docket No. 23-3624, and held oral argument on Feb. 5, 2024. Center for Biological Diversity et al., v. BLM et al., No. 23-3624 (9th Cir.).

Dec. 18, 2023 The Iñupiat village of Nuiqsut’s tribal and city councils passed resolutions rescinding their opposition to the Willow Project.

April 19, 2024 BLM issued a final rule updating its regulations for managing the NPR-A, prohibiting oil and gas development activities on 11 million acres of the NPR-A, with 11.8 million acres open to oil and gas leasing subject to additional conditions. For example, under the final rule, companies must offset the “reasonably foreseeable and significantly adverse effects” of drilling proposals. The rule also requires BLM to consider “Indigenous Knowledge” when evaluating resources for the designation, de-designation, and management of “special areas,” which receive maximum protections. The rule does not affect “valid existing rights” in the reserve. The rule will go into effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.

April 19, 2024 BLM issued a final supplemental environmental impact statement (FEIS) for the Ambler Road project, a project proposed by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) that would build a 211-mile-long road across the Brooks Range in north central Alaska. In the FEIS, BLM selected the “no action” alternative, finding that building the road would “significantly and irrevocably impact resources . . . in ways that cannot be adequately mitigated.” If BLM finalizes this selection in a record of decision (ROD), the agency won’t grant AIDEA the right-of-way needed to build the road.