A wide swath of Alaska’s North Slope is labeled on the map as the National Petroleum Reserve - Alaska. President Warren Harding identified and designated it as Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 4 in 1923. At that point in history, the crucial importance of petroleum and the portable energy it yields was more obvious than ever before. With fresh memories of the First World War and its epic naval battles, and with the global economy taking off creating soaring demand for oil, President Harding’s action logically devoted over 20 million acres of the Territory of Alaska to a worthy national purpose, secure energy supplies for the United States Navy. Secure domestic petroleum sources are every bit as important to our country today, if not more so.
In 1976, the same year Alaskans voted to create the Permanent Fund, the federal government renamed the Naval Petroleum Reserve as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPRA) and transferred its governance to the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM). While the Permanent Fund is a tremendous asset that provides significant annual benefits to Alaskans, the change in management of NPRA was not such a step in the right direction.
Congress also acted in 1976 to authorize oil and gas leasing in NPRA, and while leases have been sold, no development has taken place. BLM held a total of seven tract sales intermittently from 1999 through 2011, and a further sale has is listed as scheduled for November 2012 on the BLM website. The description of “oil and gas activity” shows that last exploratory well was drilled in early 2009.
Last month Ken Salazar, the Secretary of the Interior, visited Alaska and while here he announced extensive new proposed wildlife habitat rules and protective measures to be imposed over more than half of NPRA acreage. These rules promise to impede exploration and development of existing leases, and could vastly reduce the quality and quantity of new lease sales.
All Alaskans should logically want to see the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) flowing much fuller than it has in recent years, reversing an alarming decline. All Americans ought to embrace the national benefits of NPRA exploration and production. While our country and the world will use more energy produced from renewable sources in future, we are going to need plenty of petroleum in the meanwhile. America must produce more of its own oil as part of obtaining greater energy independence.
These federal efforts to restrict NPRA development appear to violate the promises and commitments made with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act that no more federal land in Alaska would be locked up and made unavailable for beneficial development. It is all the more ironic that this is happening on property expressly set aside for its petroleum resources. To make matters worse, oil and gas development outside NPRA – offshore in the Chukchi Sea – may be stalled or made vastly more expensive. BLM’s plan would force the developers offshore to meet heightened regulatory standards at multiple places along the route over which a new pipeline will bring the oil from undersea to TAPS for shipment down to Valdez. This may force a different, longer, and more expensive route to be chosen, or could conceivably prevent overland transport of the oil altogether.
Federal policy regarding oil development in Alaska is plainly misguided. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is almost universally believed to be the best place for easily findable and extractable oil near existing operations on the North Slope, but it is off limits until Congress acts to open it. This has led the oil industry to look in shallow offshore waters, but these prospects require some activity on land to work. While NPRA is expressly designated as a place to provide oil, and has been for much the better part of a century, BLM is acting to prevent development there or its even serving as a conduit for adjacent production.
Then there are the so-called legacy wells. Some 136 wells were dug by the Navy in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and by the U.S. Geological Survey in the 1970s and 1980s. These are messes left over from prior exploration, and ought to have been cleaned up by BLM long ago. Unfortunately, the agency has dealt with only a dozen of these in the past ten years, although a ‘legacy well assessment’ has been prepared.
Alaskans and all Americans could be much better served by BLM in its management of NPRA. The future demand for oil may create circumstances that will force more rapid action, and it would be preferable to make progress now when we’re not facing an emergency.
• Brown serves as Chairman of the Alaska State Council on the Arts, and is an attorney who lives in Juneau.