Utne Blogs > Environment

The Race to Save a Piece of the American Arctic

 chukchi sea
The Chukchi Sea serves as the western border to the National
Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. (Creative Commons:

In the July/August issue of Utne Reader, wildlife biologist Jeff Fair introduced us to the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, an unlikely name for such a beautiful and crucial wildlife habitat on Alaska’s North Slope. Writing for Audubon Magazine, Fair offered some background on the 23-million-acre arctic reserve, the rich variety of migratory birds and caribou that live there, and the miniscule amount of oil being used as an excuse to introduce habitat-damaging oil infrastructure.

While Congress mandated “maximum protection” for the reserve’s wildlife from energy exploration and development back in 1976, the reality is that every president since – from Carter to Obama – has done little to ensure that protection. One could argue that they’ve actually made it easier for petroleum interests to gain a foothold in the refuge.

In May 2011, responding to high gasoline prices and the political call for greater domestic oil production, President Obama authorized the Interior Department to begin conducting annual lease sales in the reserve with that stipulation that “sensitive areas” be respected, specifically around Teshekpuk Lake. As Fair notes, the reserve has been “open” for oil leasing to private companies since 1981, but previous administrations haven’t extended the habitat protections that Obama’s has. Whether that approach is maintained, though, is the big question.

Hoping to “facilitate the responsible development of the abundant resources” in the reserve, the Bureau of Land Management released a Draft Integrated Activity Plan and Environment Impact Statement on March 29 that is open to public comment until June 15. The plan outlines four alternatives to the current management strategy ranging from no changes (Alternative A), to more significant habitat protection and oil and gas leasing on nearly 1/2 of the reserve (Alternative B), to less significant habitat protection and oil and gas leasing on 3/4 of the reserve (Alternative C), to widespread oil and gas leasing while still “protecting surface resources with a collection of protection measures” (Alternative D).

Wildlife supporters are most interested in seeing Alternative B selected by the BLM, as it offers the greatest protections for critical habitat around Teshekpuk Lake, coastal bays and lagoons, and 12 rivers throughout the reserve, while still offering oil and gas leasing on nearly half of the reserve. And, as Eric Meyers, policy director of Audubon Alaska notes, the amount of oil at stake is truly miniscule.

“Based on the government’s analysis in the Draft EIS, the difference between the alternative that would provide a true balance of oil development and protection of surface/wildlife values (Alternative B), and the next and far more aggressive oil development alternative (Alternative C) amounts to only about two weeks of oil consumption some ten years into the future,” said Meyers. “(It is) an entirely insignificant and inconsequential volume of oil that would make no difference to oil prices or national security.”

Meyers also emphasized that while the formal public comment period ends June 15, the BLM will be deliberating on the final plan throughout the summer, and concerned individuals should continue to express their views to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. “The Final EIS is not due until the fall and that will be followed by a final Record of Decision, so opportunities to be heard will continue,” said Meyers.