December oil lease sale scheduled for federal lands in Arctic Alaska

This year's lease sale for the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska is much smaller than last year's — but still far larger than previous lease sales there.

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Rivers, lakes and tundra in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, on Alaska’s North Slope. (Bob Wick / Bureau of Land Management)

About 2.85 million acres of federal territory in Arctic Alaska will be offered next month for oil and gas exploration, officials announced in a Federal Register notice.

The annual oil and gas lease sale for the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, a 23 million-acre swath of land on the western side of Alaska’s North Slope, will be held on Dec. 12, the Bureau of Land Management said in the notice.

The lease sale will put 254 tracts on the auction block, the notice said.

That’s much less land than was offered in last year’s NPR-A lease sale. That sale offered 900 tracts spread over 10.3 million acres, the most ever put up for action in the reserve’s history.

Despite the vast amount of land offered, the 2017 lease sale attracted only seven bids.

Last year, the BLM offered all tracts designated as available for development in the agency’s 2013 Integrated Activity Plan, spokeswoman Lesli Ellis-Wouters said.

“This year, we are offering those available tracts nominated through our call for nominations announced in August which is the 254 tracts,” she said in an email.

While it is much smaller than the 2017 sale, this year’s sale is still larger than most NPR-A lease sales held in past years.

In past years, the annual NPR-A lease sale has been held on the same day as the state of Alaska’s annual Arctic oil and gas lease sales. That is not the case this time.

“We traditionally try to hold our lease sale in conjunction with the State, but unfortunately we were unable to coordinate this year,” Ellis-Wouters said.

The National Petroleum Reserve is considered a hotbed of oil exploration and a prospective frontier for lucrative oil discoveries and production.

ConocoPhillips Alaska Inc., the oil company most active on the western side of the North Slope, has started production at fields within the reserve’s borders and is launching development of more. The company last month started production at its Greater Mooses Tooth 1 drill site, or GMT 1,  the westernmost producing oil field in Arctic Alaska. Also last month, ConocoPhillips got the BLM’s approval for its GMT 2 project, which is even farther west and is expected to start producing in 2021. The company has started planning for a larger field, Willow; and the BLM has launched its environmental studies of that project.

Environmentalists criticized the upcoming lease sale and plans for more oil development on the North Slope.

“Auctioning off Alaska’s wilderness to oil companies accelerates the extinction crisis and climate chaos,” Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “The Trump administration wants to industrialize this pristine home to millions of caribou, migratory birds and other wildlife. The Northern Alaska frontier is one of the biggest stretches of untrammeled wilderness left in the world. Scientists say protecting these large ecosystems is crucial to maintaining our planet’s biodiversity. Climate change is already underway in Alaska and this lease-sale will only make it worse.”

The Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups have sued the Interior Department to overturn past NPR-A lease sales, including one held in the waning days of the Obama administration. The lawsuits contend that officials failed to adequately consider climate change in their pre-sale studies. That lawsuit is pending in U.S. District Court in Anchorage.