Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources commissioner recently characterized the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska’s Integrated Activity Plan as lacking balance.
In fact, the plan in its current form has created a markedly productive approach for balancing oil development in the sensitive Arctic while protecting some of the most valuable fish and wildlife habitat that exists in the entire Arctic.
Such balance is dictated by the laws governing the NPR-A, which require “maximum protection of surface values” to designated areas “containing any significant subsistence, recreational, fish and wildlife, or historical or scenic value” (42 U.S.C. § 6504(a)). In the final Record of Decision, the existing plan protects four Special Areas including the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, the Colville River Special Area, the Utukok Uplands Special Area and the Kasegaluk Lagoon Special Area, while at the same time making available for development 72 percent of the NPR-A’s estimated recoverable oil reserves.
The best indicator of the fairness and balance embodied in the current plan may be the diverse and favorable reactions it has enjoyed. The Western Arctic Caribou Working Group in Northwest Alaska adopted resolutions in favor of the Integrated Activity Plan, with strong local community support, in particular for how the plan protects the core calving area of both the Western and Teshekpuk Lake caribou herds. The environmental community endorsed the plan in 2013.
The only deviation on the current plan came from the oil development side in 2015, when the final permit for the GMT1 project included road construction in the otherwise protected Fish Creek Buffer, a decision that required a special waiver of the best management practices written into the plan. But the environmental community has so far held firm in support of the plan, choosing instead to work with BLM and oil companies like ConocoPhillips to stick to the plan’s carefully balanced strictures. Oil has been flowing and development has not been delayed by unproductive litigation.
Let’s not lose sight of the strong rationale underpinning the plan in its current form, especially for the no-leasing and no-infrastructure requirements around Teshekpuk Lake.
According to state of Alaska biologists, about 90 percent of the caribou harvest in Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow) comes from the Teshekpuk Lake herd. The ducks and geese that use Teshekpuk in extraordinary numbers are the same ducks and geese that waterfowl hunters harvest and people see in other parts of Alaska and the Lower 48; these stakeholders have a strong argument for conserving the habitat around Teshekpuk. Approximately 600,000 (10 percent) of the estimated 6 million shorebirds found across the NPR-A use the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area. For four decades now, presidents from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan as well as agency land managers have consistently recognized Teshekpuk as an important place that justifies extra protection.
The current Integrated Activity Plan’s parameters for Teshekpuk Lake and the other recognized special areas are the result of the best available science and compromises on all sides. Reopening the plan process will almost certainly tell the same story: Teshekpuk Lake and the other identified special areas still merit ongoing protection, as part of the balanced approach required by law. Why disrupt a plan that has benefited all Alaskans?
Nils Warnock is the executive director for Audubon Alaska, the state office for the National Audubon Society, which represents members and supporters who live, work and enjoy birds in Alaska.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Arctic Now, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at) arcticnow.com.