Trump administration wants to open millions of more acres to oil development on Alaska’s North Slope

Pipelines stretch toward the horizon in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. (Photo by Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

The Trump administration is proposing to open millions of additional acres to oil and gas development in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, a move blasted by environmental groups and praised by Alaska’s governor and other state and federal officials.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management released its final environmental impact statement Thursday for a new management plan for the 23-million-acre reserve, which sits west of Prudhoe Bay.

The plan would make 82% of the area available for drilling, up from the 52% that’s open under an Obama-era document. The Trump proposal would expand leasing into another 7 million acres that’s currently protected from development — an area just larger than the state of Vermont.

The reserve is estimated to hold about 8.7 billion barrels of oil, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

But it’s also home to important habitat for birds and caribou, including the Teshekpuk Lake area in the reserve’s northeastern corner. And conservation groups point to the 1976 Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act, which directs the interior secretary to uphold environmental and subsistence values in NPR-A.

Those groups decried the new plan Thursday, describing it as reckless, rushed and shameful, as well as a threat to the Teshekpuk Lake area, subsistence and the climate.  The area was off-limits to drilling in the Obama-era document, and would become completely open under the Trump administration plan — though there would be limits on when and how development could occur.

“This is really giving away vital habitat for caribou and migratory birds and will only exacerbate the climate crisis,” Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska program director for Defenders of Wildlife said in a phone interview. “So, we feel this is bad for the Western Arctic and it’s bad for the planet.”

In a statement, the Interior Department described the reserve as critical for “American energy dominance and national security.” And it said the plan has stipulations to protect the Teshekpuk Lake area, including “timing limitations” for major construction.

“We’ve looked to open up some additional areas to leasing based on new information while also using management prescriptions to protect important wildlife, habitat and subsistence uses,” Bureau of Land Management Alaska State Director Chad Padgett said in the statement.

The BLM released its draft environmental impact statement last fall.

But the preferred alternative announced Thursday was not part of it. Some conservation groups criticized the agency Thursday for not allowing communities to provide input on the option.

In its statement, the Interior Department said public comment led to the creation of the new and preferred alternative.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy thanked Trump’s administration for proposing to open more land to development, calling it a better balance than the Obama-era plan. Alaska’s congressional delegation also praised the decision.

The BLM is expected to publish a final Record of Decision in the next 30 days, which will guide future lease sales in the reserve.

Alaska’s Energy Desk reporter Nathaniel Herz contributed to this report.