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Critics Say Biden Must Do More to Keep Arctic Oil in the Ground

A new plan would protect a major bird-breeding hotspot but maintain industry access to billions of barrels of Alaskan crude.

Update: On April 25, 2022, the Department of the Interior announced their Record of Decision finalizing its plan to strengthen the management of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A).

After one year in the White House, President Joe Biden is taking fire from all sides when it comes to the government’s stance on fossil fuels. Environmentalists are fed up with his failure to halt oil and gas activity on federal lands. Meanwhile, energy companies castigate him for taking steps to rein in the industry. The administration is caught in the middle, trying to meet climate goals while facing the legal and political challenges of freezing development where drillers already hold federal leases. 

Now, on Alaska’s North Slope, Biden’s fossil-fuel balancing act—or, as critics see it, his attempt to have it both ways—is playing out across the wild landscape of the nation’s largest tract of public land, with high stakes for Arctic wildlife and the global climate.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced on January 10 that it intends to protect nearly 7 million acres of the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska that oil companies would have been able to develop under a Trump-era plan. Once finalized, the move will restore special protections for the wetlands around Teshekpuk Lake, one of the Arctic’s most important bird habitats. 

However, it will still allow leasing in half of the Indiana-size reserve, known as the NPR-A, which sits atop an estimated 8.7 billion barrels of oil. And it doesn’t stop drillers from tapping into major recent discoveries in already-leased areas that, if developed, would extend pipelines and roads further into the NPR-A, making additional exploration and drilling more economically attractive. 

Conservation groups say the decision to limit energy development in the reserve doesn’t go far enough to defuse what they call a “carbon bomb” below the tundra—one that they warn, if detonated, would destroy any chance of meeting Biden’s goal of a carbon-neutral economy by 2050.

“It’s an important step in the right direction to get rid of the Trump administration’s plan for the reserve, which was really egregious,” says Jeremy Lieb, a senior associate attorney with the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice, which has fought in court to prevent drilling in the NPR-A. At the same time, Lieb says, “it falls short on what the science is clear on, that we really can’t afford to develop any more oil in the Arctic. And it falls short on the Biden administration’s promises to address the climate crisis.”

In few places do oil riches and vulnerable ecosystems overlap so confoundingly as in the NPR-A. The reserve was created in 1923 as an emergency oil supply for the Navy. Since 1976, however, the BLM has overseen its mountains, rivers, and vast coastal plain extending north to the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, managing it not only for its oil, but as a landscape and ecosystem whose abundant wildlife is an important subsistence resource for Alaska Native communities. 

The Teshekpuk Lake area, in particular, teems with sensitive wildlife. Some 600,000 shorebirds breed around the lake each year, and an estimated 100,000 Cackling Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese, Snow Geese, and Brant use the region as a safe haven during their vulnerable molting period. 

In addition, the Teshekpuk caribou herd, which relies on calving and insect-relief grounds around the lake, is an important subsistence resource for Alaska Native communities in the region. “Iñupiat people have used that land and it has sustained us since time immemorial,” says Siqiñiq Maupin, executive director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic (SILA). “It’s much more than a petroleum reserve to us.”

In 2013 the Obama administration implemented a management plan that aimed to strike a balance between the NPR-A’s energy and ecosystem values, allowing oil and gas leasing on 11.8 million acres while also expanding special protections for the Teshekpuk Lake area

Two years later ConocoPhillips pumped the first crude from the reserve. Since then the oil giant has extended its reach with a project that came online in 2018 and another operation, deeper still into the NPR-A, that began producing just last month. These and other discoveries revived many Alaskans’ hopes that production on the North Slope could be headed for a rebound after three decades of decline that have put a strain on the state’s oil-dependent finances. 

The new oil prospects also ramped up pressure to drill in the reserve, and helped spur the Trump administration to roll back restrictions there. Just days before Biden’s inauguration, the BLM approved a management plan that expanded the acreage available for leasing by an area the size of Massachusetts. The Trump plan also scrapped protections for the Teshekpuk Lake area, alarming Indigenous activists and conservation groups.

Upon taking office, Biden immediately put the NPR-A management plan and dozens of its predecessor’s other rollbacks under review. Then, this month, the BLM said that, rather than opening most of the reserve to development, it intends to return to the more restrictive 2013 management plan. “This decision reflects the Biden-Harris administration’s priority of reviewing existing oil and gas programs to ensure balance on America’s public lands and waters to benefit current and future generations,” a BLM press release said.

The Alaska Oil and Gas Association condemned the reversal. The Trump plan “was a well-considered decision that did not happen overnight,” said Kara Moriarty, the group’s president and CEO, in a statement. “It was fully compliant with all applicable laws. Regulatory decisions must be predictable, and they should not be subject to the political whims of changing administrations.”

Environmentalists see things differently. While many praised the BLM’s decision as an improvement over the Trump plan, there is a widely shared sense that the Biden administration is not doing nearly enough to rein in fossil fuel development. The International Energy Agency warned last year that all investment in fossil fuels must stop immediately to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

In climate activists’ view, the president has broken his pledge to end oil and gas activity on federal lands. Biden suspended leases that the Trump administration sold in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge east of the NPR-A, and pressed pause on all new federal leasing shortly after taking office. But after a federal court struck down that moratorium, Biden’s Interior Department held the largest auction of offshore oil and gas leases in the nation’s history, and has doled out drilling permits at a breakneck pace. The U.S. Energy Information Administration now projects that domestic crude production will increase this year and hit an all-time high next year.

Critics say the scaled-back plan for NPR-A energy development falls short of what’s needed, given the nation’s rising oil output and the mounting destruction caused by climate change, which is hitting Alaska and the Arctic particularly hard. “The Biden administration is still acting as though it’s 2013, despite the fact that the climate crisis and energy transition have both dramatically accelerated over the past decade,” said Philip Wight, a University of Alaska Fairbanks historian who studies the state’s energy industry, in an email to Audubon. “The world is in a dramatically different place now than when the Obama administration created this plan.”

While leaving half of the NPR-A open to leasing could lead to new oil discoveries, environmentalists are most acutely concerned about the Biden administration’s stance on projects already in the works. Green groups were aghast last May when the Justice Department chose to defend in court the Trump BLM’s 2020 decision to let ConocoPhillips move forward with its Willow project. The 586-million-barrel bonanza would reach into the area around Teshekpuk Lake, including nesting habitat for Yellow-billed Loons. Burning its oil would produce some 260 million metric tons of carbon dioxide—equal to the annual output of 66 coal-fired power plants. The company’s plans called for 251 wells, 37 miles of roads, 386 miles of pipelines, and chillers under its drilling pads and roads to maintain the permafrost that is melting as a result of burning fossil fuels. 

Environmentalists worry that the new infrastructure would enable further development in the NPR-A, including a recent discovery known as Project Peregrine, which the Australian firm 88 Energy estimates holds more than 1 billion barrels of crude. “It’s the continuation of North Slope infrastructure sprawl,” says David Krause, director of conservation at Audubon Alaska. “These resources are a carbon bomb. If they’re developed, any efforts to meet international commitments on climate change are going to be blown.”

The Biden administration has since backed away from Willow, declining to appeal a federal court ruling in August that blocked the project after SILA, Earthjustice, and other groups sued to stop it. Now the BLM is working on a supplemental environmental impact statement to address shortcomings flagged in that court ruling. Lieb of Earthjustice says that new review should lead the administration to reject Willow, given its climate impacts. 

For the moment, however, the possibility remains that Willow’s industrial footprint could soon sprawl across the tundra, setting the stage for more development and copious new carbon emissions. Arctic activists don’t expect ConocoPhillips to stop pushing to develop the prospect, and they’re ready to push back. “We are going to be putting all of our energy into stopping this project, because we don’t have any more time to continue extracting from the land,” says Maupin of SILA. “When is enough enough?”

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