Major oil development planned in NPR-A to get ‘streamlined’ environmental review

Northeast National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. (Photo by Bob Wick, image courtesy Bureau of Land Management)

The federal Bureau of Land Management last week kicked off the environmental review process for what could be one of Alaska’s biggest future oil developments — ConocoPhillips’ Willow project, in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, or NPR-A.

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In the past, this process has taken years and thousands of pages of analysis. The Trump administration wants to make that process go faster and dramatically reduce the amount paperwork involved. But environmental groups worry a faster review won’t do enough to protect the Arctic wilderness.

Top Interior Department official Joe Balash thinks paring down the government’s environmental review process makes sense.

“When it comes to a decision maker such as myself, who has to make decisions on multiple fronts every week, you can’t legitimately sit down and read through 2,500 pages of analysis,” Balash said in a recent interview.

Federal environmental reviews are meant to look at all the potential impacts of projects like mines and oil developments on federal land, and try to avoid — or at least minimize — those impacts. But Balash argues the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, has gotten way out of hand.

“These complex, mind-numbing NEPA documents have become a field for very specialized consultants and litigants. And it really is not serving the public interest,” Balash said.

Republicans have long argued environmental groups use NEPA to slow or halt development. So last year, the Interior Department put forth an order to speed along the NEPA process. Among other things, it caps the number of pages agencies can fill with analysis about environmental impacts at 150, or 300 “for unusually complex projects, excluding appendices.” It also says environmental impact statements can’t take longer than a year to prepare.

Previous environmental reviews in Alaska have been well over 1,000 pages, and have taken multiple years to complete.

“If we can’t describe the project, the alternatives, the affected environment and the impacts in 150 to 300 pages, then we’re probably using too many words to describe something,” Balash said.

One of the first projects in Alaska to benefit from the Trump administration’s truncated environmental review is a major oil development ConocoPhillips is proposing on the North Slope. Last year, Conoco announced a huge oil discovery in the federally-managed NPR-A. Conoco’s plans to recover all that oil involve a central processing facility, an airstrip, pipelines and up to five drill pads with up to 50 wells on each pad, according to the Bureau of Land Management. It’s a big deal, and it’s called the Willow project.

“It’s not just a step forward in the NPR-A — it’s one of those big leaps forward,” Audubon Alaska policy director Susan Culliney said.

Audubon keeps close tabs on NPR-A because the area encompasses important habitat for a huge number of migratory birds. Culliney thinks it’s a mistake for the Trump administration to apply a faster, shorter environmental review to the Willow project.

“These public lands that belong to us — they belong to people on the North Slope, they belong to people all over the U.S. — they’re important and we need to take the time and the consideration to think about these things,” Culliney said. “Especially for a place as complex and sensitive as the Arctic landscape.”

Culliney said Audubon doesn’t oppose the Willow oil development at this point — it is waiting to see how things play out. But she thinks the Trump administration’s streamlined environmental review could mean they miss something important in the process.

“That’s the risk of doing something too quick, too hasty. You open yourself up to those errors,” Culliney said.

Another environmental group, the litigious Center for Biological Diversity, is also objecting to how the Trump administration is going about its environmental review for Willow. The group is against the project.

“Skirting comprehensive review to drill hundreds of oil wells on Alaska’s rugged, unpredictable northern frontier is a recipe for disaster,” Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an emailed statement.

Balash said Interior isn’t trying to invite lawsuits by putting limits on environmental reviews.

“Certainly we’re not doing this just to get tossed out in court,” Balash said.

For its part, Conoco thinks an environmental review that takes less time doesn’t mean it will cut corners. In an emailed statement, spokesperson Natalie Lowman said, “ConocoPhillips supports a robust and efficient analysis of the Willow development in line with the requirements of NEPA and the BLM’s Integrated Activity Plan for the NPR-A.”