There’s a new Arctic drilling battle brewing…and it’s not in ANWR

The National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska encompasses important habitat for migratory birds. The vast region is also increasingly promising for oil development. (Photo by Bob Wick, courtesy BLM)

The National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) is a region in the Arctic bigger than many U.S. states. But it’s flown under the radar for years, unlike a different chunk of federal land located just to the east: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

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That’s likely to change. A series of promising oil discoveries and a recent move by the Trump administration mean this vast, remote area is about to get a lot more controversial.

In the 1920s, President Warren G. Harding set aside NPR-A specifically for its oil potential. Today, the federal government manages the petroleum reserve as a “multiple use” area — a place with room for both habitat and oil drilling.

But Melanie Smith, director of conservation science with Audubon Alaska, thinks the name is misleading.

“It’s a somewhat unfortunate name, actually, ‘Petroleum Reserve,” Smith said.

Conservation groups point out that a giant lake in the northeast corner of the Reserve, called Teshekpuk lake, is a globally significant area for migratory birds.

Because of NPR-A’s different federal status, “it took longer to discover just how important and influential and irreplaceable parts of the Petroleum Reserve are, and really realize they are on par with the Arctic Refuge,” said Smith.

That’s right, Smith called parts of the Reserve on par with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The areas have different federal designations, but ecologically — well, birds can’t tell the difference.

In 2013, the Obama administration cited the need to protect “critical areas for sensitive bird populations from all seven continents” when it put close to half of the Reserve off limits to oil and gas leasing, including more than 3 million acres surrounding Teshekpuk lake.

But a lot has changed since then.

At an oil and gas conference in Anchorage this May, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed an order that, among other things, requires a review of the Obama administration’s plan for managing NPR-A.

“This order, in effect, makes Alaska open for business,” Zinke said as he signed it.

It wasn’t clear exactly what that meant until last week, when the Interior Department sent out a call asking which parts of the Reserve should be opened up to oil and gas leasing. Environmental groups were alarmed because the request made it clear that areas the Obama administration protected could be back on the table.

But the move didn’t come out of nowhere. Andy Mack, head of Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources, said re-evaluating the plan makes sense. That’s because we know things now we didn’t know four years ago.

It turns out there’s a lot more oil in the Reserve than everyone thought — even as recently as 2013.

“It couldn’t be a more dramatic shift,” Mack said.

Back in 2013, the Obama administration slashed its estimate for the amount of oil in NPR-A — from 10 billion barrels to 1 billion barrels. In the 2000s, the oil industry tried drilling wells in search of oil there, and Mack said they didn’t have much luck.

Plus, when the Reserve’s current plan was crafted in 2013, the industry was focused on a different prize: offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean. The Obama administration made a tradeoff — it protected parts of the Reserve, but also allowed for a pipeline across a different section of the Reserve, so oil from Arctic waters could be carried to market.

Fast-forward to 2017: Shell has abandoned its Arctic offshore drilling campaign. And over the last year or so, there has been a series of huge oil discoveries in and around the Reserve, including finds by ConocoPhillips and Armstrong Energy. Mack said the promise of NPR-A is a big deal for a state grappling with both a recession and a steady decline in oil production.

“This is certainly some of the most exciting well results we’ve seen, and it really is something that we as a state have to appreciate and understand and capitalize on,” Mack said.

The discoveries come on the heels of the first-ever oil development in NPR-A — a drill site run by ConocoPhillips, called CD5. That started producing oil in 2015, and two more are on the way.

And this could be just the beginning, according to David Houseknecht, one of the U.S. Geological Survey’s top experts on Alaska’s oil resources.

“There’s a lot of potential in all of Northeastern NPR-A for the kinds of discoveries that have just been announced,” Houseknecht said.

But it just so happens that the area with the most oil potential overlaps with the same area that environmentalists say is crucial wildlife habitat.

Nicole Whittington-Evans with the Wilderness Society says the recent oil finds — plus the Trump administration’s secretarial order “opening Alaska for business” — have groups like hers on high alert.

“We have a strong desire to see this area protected. And we are very concerned about the recent finds and the level of interest for drilling for oil in this extremely important place,” Whittington-Evans said.

If the Trump administration moves to allow oil exploration near NPR-A’s Teshkepuk lake, environmental groups are going to fight it, just as they’ve fought development in the Arctic Refuge for decades. The question is — will a place called a “Petroleum Reserve” capture hearts and minds as easily as the Arctic Refuge?

Correction: An earlier version of this story called the Trump administration’s order to review the Obama administration’s NPR-A management plan an executive order. It was a secretarial order.

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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