The reserve, about the size of Indiana, is also one of the most promising onshore oil prospects in the country. A recent analysis by the U.S. Geological Survey offered a mean estimate of 8.7 billion barrels in undiscovered oil and 25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
“President Trump has committed to expand access to our Nation’s great energy potential,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in a statement. “Today’s action is one more significant step in the process of delivering on his promise.” The statement said the move was in line with a March 2017 executive order by President Trump.
The BLM posted notice of its Final Environmental Impact Statement on Thursday, and is expected to issue a final Record of Decision within 30 days. Environmentalists and some Alaska Natives, who have lived on the North Slope for millennia and depend on its game for subsistence, are likely to challenge the decision once it’s final.
ConocoPhillips has already been exploring the site, known as NPR-A. Alaska’s largest oil producer, it holds a total of 1.1 million acres and has discovered oil in remote areas called Moose’s Tooth and Bear Tooth.
But many Alaska Natives living near the reserve object to further development, on the grounds that it could harm the animals that make up a significant portion of their diet. Teshekpuk Lake serves as molting area for one-fifth of the world’s Pacific black brant and calving grounds for tens of thousands of caribou each summer.
The new plan shrinks the protected area around Teshekpuk Lake, a 22-mile-wide reservoir created by thawing permafrost, though it does restrict major construction activities using heavy equipment between May 20 and Aug. 20 unless authorized by federal, state and local officials so caribou can calve and seek refuge from mosquitoes. It also eliminates most of the protections around the Colville River Special Area, which was established in 1977 to protect raptors and other area wildlife.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials last year recommended the administration maintain the long-standing safeguards, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by The Wilderness Society. In them, the agency said it believes the “full protection of these areas is necessary to sustain the biodiversity and ecologic integrity of the North Slope/coastal plain, especially given the impacts of climate change including increased coastal erosion and permafrost subsidence.”
Suzanne Bostrom, a staff attorney at the nonprofit environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska, said in an interview that the fact that BLM has devised a drilling plan that goes further than any of the options the agency outlined last year, which is poised to be finalized without public comment, makes it legally vulnerable.