If a petroleum reserve has a relative scarcity of oil but is rich in shorebirds, waterfowl and caribou, can it still be called a petroleum reserve?
That's the question of some environmentalists who have begun calling the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska the "Western Arctic Reserve," a name they argue better reflects the region's multitude of wildlife, wilderness and subsistence values.
"Names are very important," said Chuck Clusen, director of the national park project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, whose blog post late last month called for protecting the Western Arctic Reserve, formally known as NPR-A.
But the name change has miffed Republican lawmakers and oil-industry backers who say it ignores the purposes for which the 22.5-million-acre reserve was created in 1923 -- to provide oil and gas resources to the Navy.
"They made it up," Dan Kish, senior vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research, an industry-backed think tank, said of the name, whose acronym spells WAR. "It's easier to sell to people, even amongst their donors. When you say, 'Gee, help us save the National Petroleum Reserve,' how are you going to get them to fork over the money for that?"
House Republicans advanced a bill (H.R. 2150) last October by House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) that says NPR-A "remains explicitly designated, both in name and legal status, for purposes of providing oil and natural gas resources to the United States."
"The NPR-A is, by name and by law, a petroleum reserve," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told the panel last year. "It is not a wildlife refuge, it's not a national park, it's not a monument or a wilderness area. Its primary statutory purpose is to supply conventional energy resources to our nation."
The branding war comes as the Obama administration finalizes a sweeping plan that would make roughly half the reserve available for oil and gas development, while vastly expanding protections for caribou, waterbirds and shorebirds, raptors and marine mammals. The Interior Department plan would reduce lands available for leasing by less than 10 percent, trimming available oil from an estimated 723 million barrels to 549 million barrels, according to a chart comparing alternatives.
But Murkowski is pursuing legislation to halt the administration plan, said spokesman Robert Dillon.
For environmentalists, the word "petroleum" poses challenges in lobbying lawmakers and government officials to provide long-term protections, particularly in oil-rich areas like Teshekpuk Lake, which supports one of the nation's largest concentrations of birds, including the rare yellow-billed loon and the threatened spectacled eider.
The naming effort parallels a similar recent campaign to call the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge the "Arctic Refuge" rather than by its initials, ANWR, which some say sound like the former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat when pronounced aloud (Greenwire, Nov. 11, 2011).
The Wilderness Society began using the term Western Arctic Reserve sometime within the last two years, said Nicole Whittington-Evans, regional director in the group's Anchorage office.
"People who know little about the beauty and importance of this wilderness habitat hear the words 'petroleum reserve' and imagine a place that exists for no other reason than to drill holes into it," she said. "The truth is that the reserve, an area about as large as the state of Indiana, is much more than just a potential source of oil."
On its website, the Wilderness Society says NPR-A is "cursed with what may be the ugliest and most ill-fitting name of any wild landscape."
The name NPR-A, Whittington-Evans added, fails to connote an environmentally sensitive Arctic place. It also fails to convey the dual mandate Congress gave to the Bureau of Land Management in 1976, when the land was transferred to the agency, to offer "maximum protection" for special areas, including Teshekpuk and the Utukok River, while at the same time allowing for oil and gas exploration, she said.
But former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (R) in 1980 inserted language into an appropriations bill mandating expedited oil and gas leasing in the reserve.
Clusen said NRDC started using the name Western Arctic Reserve roughly 16 years ago, and was the first group to aggressively use it in place of NPR-A.
As a lobbyist, Clusen in the 1970s helped push for the inclusion of language in the 1976 Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act protecting Teshekpuk and Utukok, he said. House versions of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1978 and 1980 proposed turning the entirety of NPR-A into a national wildlife refuge, he said.
Names can enhance an area's appeal, tourism officials say, such as when a federal area is designated a national monument or upgraded to a national park. Legislation decades ago by Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) would have established the Teshekpuk-Utukok National Wildlife Refuge.
"In ANILCA we renamed Granite Fjords in southeast Alaska to Misty Fjords, and it was an overnight success," Clusen said.
Backers of Alaska's oil industry are taking the groups' NPR-A campaign seriously, noting that the reserve offers one of the best chances to revive supplies to the depleted Trans-Alaska pipeline, or TAPS, which is at risk of shutting down.
"They've already locked up our entire northeastern coast on ANWR, and now they're trying to lock the entire west end in NPR-A," said Dillon, Murkowski's spokesman.
"They're fully aware of the power of the name," he said. "It would be like if I called ANWR the '10-billion-barrel depository.'"
But Dillon warned that environmentalists are hoping to stop more than individual oil and gas wells in NPR-A. Restricting infrastructure development -- such as a future pipeline running from the Arctic Ocean to TAPS -- would make offshore oil development in the Chukchi Sea virtually impossible.
"They don't have to fight the battle so hard to stop Shell, because they have a decade to stop Shell by blocking the pipeline," Dillon said, referring to drilling plans by Royal Dutch Shell PLC. "This is scary stuff."
Alaska lawmakers last month blasted Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's plan to provide special management protections across roughly 13 million acres of NPR-A, including significant expansions of protections at Teshekpuk and Utukok and a new special area at Peard Bay (Greenwire, Aug. 14).
Murkowski is already eyeing legislation that would undo the plan, which is set to be finalized in the coming months.
"In this Congress, we won't get a bill through the Senate that will undo this, but this Congress is almost over," Dillon said. "There will be a legislative or a congressional response. I can almost guarantee that this will not be the final decision."
Murkowski in December inserted language in the fiscal 2012 omnibus spending bill transferring air permitting authority for Arctic offshore drilling from U.S. EPA to Interior, a move many expect will accelerate future exploration proposals from Shell, ConocoPhillips and the Norwegian firm Statoil.
Dillon said he doesn't expect legislation addressing NPR-A to be pushed until the next Congress, which Republicans may control depending on the November elections.
While there is no scarcity of oil and gas in the reserve, the U.S. Geological Survey in 2010 downsized its estimate of technically recoverable crude by about 90 percent. The 896 million barrels of undiscovered oil put it far below the 10 billion barrels of crude believed to exist beneath the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which sits hundreds of miles east of NPR-A.
Alaska officials say the most recent USGS estimate for NPR-A was flawed because it failed to conduct enough test holes or seismic surveys and excluded shale gas and oil.
Want to read more stories like this?
E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.
Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.