As BLM moves to protect the National Petroleum Reserve, Conoco pushes back

CD5, ConocoPhillips’ first oil development within the boundaries of NPR-A. (Photo by Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

It may be called the “National Petroleum Reserve,” but the 23-million-acre chunk of federal land on the North Slope didn’t see a full-scale oil development until 2015. As this new era begins, the Bureau of Land Management is adding another layer of protection to this vast, sensitive area.

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Depending on who you ask, the agency is either asking too much of oil companies or not enough.

Last month at the Bureau of Land Management’s lease sale for the the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), a pattern emerged: the oil company ConocoPhillips was winning — again and again and again.

ConocoPhillips picked up close to 600,000 acres in the National Petroleum Reserve last month. The company is behind the first oil project in Reserve, called CD5, and it’s steaming ahead with two more developments there, Greater Mooses Tooth 1 and Greater Mooses Tooth 2.

But Conoco is clashing with its landlord, the BLM. The federal agency is working on new, tougher requirements for oil development in NPR-A.

Oil companies are already required to minimize their footprint as much as possible, like by restricting traffic when caribou are nearby, but Stacie McIntosh, BLM’s Arctic Office Manager, explains some impacts are impossible to avoid. For example, an oil development could overlap with the subsistence hunting area used by the people who live nearby.

“There’s always going to be residual impacts because a development is going to remove a certain amount of acreage from a community’s harvest area,” McIntosh said.

That’s where this new strategy comes in: BLM will expect companies to compensate for the unavoidable impacts of oil development. For example, an oil company could build a road to provide access to other hunting areas.

But Conoco strongly opposes the new approach. In a letter to BLM, the company called a draft of the strategy “a polarizing document” that has “major flaws.” The company said there are already hundreds of requirements in place to protect the National Petroleum Reserve. Conoco also said BLM isn’t taking into account the benefits of oil development, like job opportunities for local communities.

A spokeswoman for ConocoPhillips declined to comment beyond the letter, but plenty of others were willing to speak out.

“We’re in a situation where the bar is constantly being raised and it’s becoming evermore challenging in terms of economically exploring and developing the resources in NPR-A,” Carl Portman said. Portman is deputy director of the Resource Development Council in Anchorage. ConocoPhillips is a member of RDC.

BLM’s new strategy also has political opponents like Senator Lisa Murkowski, who asked the agency to withdraw it altogether.

But environmental groups say the protections are important. If anything, they want the BLM to go further.

Nicole Whittington-Evans of The Wilderness Society said BLM should take into account how oil development could affect the climate.

“Clearly, oil and gas development and the burning of fossil fuels will have an impact on climate and will create a carbon footprint, and we believe that these types of impacts need to be addressed by the BLM,” Whitington-Evans said.

BLM hasn’t yet released a final version of the strategy. So as ConocoPhillips goes ahead with a new era of oil development in the National Petroleum Reserve, the federal government is still wrestling with how to manage the consequences.

Elizabeth Harball is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk, covering Alaska’s oil and gas industry and environmental policy. She is a contributor to the Energy Desk’s Midnight Oil podcast series. Before moving to Alaska in 2016, Harball worked at E&E News in Washington, D.C., where she covered federal and state climate change policy. Originally from Kalispell, Montana, Harball is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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