Zinke signs secretarial order to jump-start production within NPR-A

US Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke dramatically concluded his 5-day visit to Alaska by signing a secretarial order to jump-start oil production within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. The May 31 order also called for updated resource assessments along Alaska’s North Slope (ANS), including the federally managed 1002 Area on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain.

Alaska’s governor and congressional delegation applauded the move, while environmental organizations and others opposed to oil and gas development in the state condemned it.

“This is land that was set up with the sole intention of oil and gas production. However, years of politics over policy put roughly half of the NPR-A off-limits,” Zinke said during the signing ceremony at the Alaska Oil & Gas Association’s (AOGA) annual meeting. “Using this land for its original intent will create good-paying jobs and revenue for our northernmost city and strengthen our energy and national security.”

Zinke said Interior will work with the Alaska Native community to identify areas within the 22.8 million-acre reserve where responsible energy development makes the most sense and devise a plan to extract resources. “We will do it in a way that both respects the environment and traditional uses of the land as well as maintains subsistence hunting and fishing access,” he said.

Then-US Interior Sec. Ken Salazar signed a final plan for managing the NPR-A in February 2013 that he and several environmental organizations called balanced, and then-AOGA Executive Vice-Pres. Kara Moriarty (now president) called needlessly restrictive (OGJ Online, Feb. 22, 2013).

Zinke said his order specifically calls for the lawful review and development of a revised integrated activity plan (IAP) for the NPR-A that strikes an appropriate statutory balance of promoting development while protecting surface resources. It also mandates an evaluation, under the existing IAP, on efficiently and effectively maximizing the tracts offered during the next NPR-A lease sale.

Updated assessments

DOI said the order also directs the assistant secretaries of Land and Minerals Management and Water and Science to submit to the counselor to the secretary for energy policy a joint plan for updating assessments of undiscovered, technically recoverable ANS oil and gas resources, focusing on federal land including the NPR-A and the ANWR 1002 area.

The joint plan shall include consideration of new geological and geophysical data as well as potential for reprocessing existing geological and geophysical data. The secretarial order does not reduce, eliminate, or modify any environmental or regulatory requirements for energy development, DOI said. It directs Vincent DeVito, counselor to the secretary for energy policy, to deliver a plan to the secretary within 30 days for reviewing and effectuating the department’s actions under the order.

Regarding ANWR, Zinke said, “I’m a geologist. Science is a wonderful thing: It helps us understand what is going on deep below the surface of the earth. We need to use science to update our understanding of [ANWR’s 1002 area] as Congress considers important legislation to responsibly develop there one day. This order takes the important first step in a smart and measured approach to energy development in ANWR.”

Gov. Bill Walker (I) welcomed Zinke’s action. “Thanks to [his] leadership, we are ushering in an era of unprecedented federal-state partnership to develop Alaska’s resources,” he said.

Walker said NPR-A’s 2013 IAP placed more than 11 million acres of the reserve, including coastal areas with high development potential, into special conservation areas despite input from state officials and local communities. The 2013 decision essentially prevented any exploration or development in those areas and greatly impeded the state’s ability to develop infrastructure—such as roads for area communities, or new pipelines, Walker said.

“The federal agencies have been relying on outdated assessments, stale data, and restrictive planning, so today’s Secretarial Order is welcome news,” said Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Commissioner Andy Mack.

Congressional delegation responds

Alaska’s two US senators and single US House of Representatives member expressed strong support for Zinke’s order. The three Republicans described several benefits they expect from it.

“[It’s] a smart, timely step to restore access to our lands, throughput to our Trans-Alaska pipeline, and growth to our economy under reasonable regulations that do not sacrifice environmental protections,” said Lisa Murkowski, the state’s senior US senator who took Zinke and four other US Senate members to the ANS earlier in the week (OGJ Online, May 30, 2017).

Sen. Dan Sullivan said, “With this order, the administration will allow the country to finally deliver on the promised energy security and abundance we had in mind when Congress set these lands aside for future exploration and development.”

Rep. Don Young, who is on the US House Natural Resources Committee, said that Zinke’s order, coupled with a clear commitment to serve as Alaska’s partner, represented exactly what the state and its people have demanded from DOI for years. “The message couldn’t be clearer: This administration understands the importance of responsible resource development in Alaska and the Arctic and is focused on addressing the many bureaucratic roadblocks that have stood in our way for far too long.”

North Slope Borough Mayor Harry Brower Jr., an Inupiat whaling captain whose borough encompasses both NPR-A and ANWR, said after meeting with Zinke earlier in the day that the secretary committed to consulting with communities, tribes, the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, and Native corporations during its review of the NPR-A IAP.

“North Slope Borough residents recognize the importance of oil and gas to our local economy and the ability of our Borough and city governments to provide public services,” said Brower. “We look forward to working with the secretary to continue to permit responsible development on the North Slope while, at the same time, protecting our wildlife and our subsistence way of life.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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