Trump administration wants to open millions of more acres to oil development on Alaska’s North Slope

Northeast National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. (Photo by Bob Wick, image courtesy Bureau of Land Management)

The Trump administration is proposing to open millions of additional acres to oil and gas development in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, a move blasted by environmental groups and praised by Alaska’s governor and congressional delegation. 

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management released its final environmental impact statement Thursday for a new management plan for the 23-million-acre reserve, which sits west of Prudhoe Bay. 

The proposal would make 82% of the area available for drilling, up from the 52% that’s open under an Obama-era document. That would expand oil and gas leasing into another 7 million acres — an area just larger than the state of Massachusetts.

The reserve is estimated to hold about 8.7 billion barrels of oil, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. 

But it’s also home to important habitat for birds and caribou, including the Teshekpuk Lake area in the reserve’s northeastern corner. And conservation groups point to the 1976 Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act, which directs the interior secretary to uphold environmental and subsistence values in the NPR-A.

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Those groups decried the new proposal on Thursday, describing it as reckless, rushed and shameful, as well as a threat to subsistence, the climate and the Teshekpuk Lake area. The area was off-limits to drilling in the Obama-era document, and would become completely open under the Trump administration plan — though there would be limits on when and how development could occur.

“This is really giving away vital habitat for caribou and migratory birds and will only exacerbate the climate crisis,” Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska program director for Defenders of Wildlife, said in a phone interview. “So, we feel this is bad for the Western Arctic and it’s bad for the planet.” 

In a statement, the Interior Department described the reserve as critical for “American energy dominance and national security.” And it said the plan has stipulations to protect the Teshekpuk Lake area — an area that contains the most potential for oil development, said BLM Alaska State Director Chad Padgett.

“So we really took a hard look at that area, and ways to mitigate, you know, down the road should drilling occur, should things happen toward development, that we really protected those surface resources,” Padgett said in a phone interview.

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The BLM released its draft environmental impact statement last fall.

But the preferred alternative announced Thursday was not part of it. Some conservation groups criticized the agency for not allowing communities to provide input on the option.

The Interior Department said public comment led to the creation of the new and preferred alternative. 

In a statement Thursday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy thanked Trump’s administration for proposing to open more land to development, calling it a better balance than the Obama-era plan. Alaska’s congressional delegation also praised the decision, saying it would allow the state to unlock more oil and boost the economy. 

“NPR-A holds billions of barrels of oil that will ensure the continued operation of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and support good jobs for thousands of Alaskans,” U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a statement.

The final environmental impact statement is not the final decision on the NPR-A, Padgett said. That is expected as soon as the end of July.

He said another process will be required before the land can be leased.

Alaska Public Media’s Nathaniel Herz contributed to this report.

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.