Biden’s Arctic oil rules may leave ‘big gaps’ on climate

By Heather Richards | 12/18/2023 06:46 AM EST

Interior rules expected to be finalized in the coming months on the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska could have a considerable influence on oil and gas emissions.

Four small lakes are pictured with remnant ice on the northwestern side of Teshekpuk Lake.

Four small lakes are pictured with remnant ice on the northwestern side of Teshekpuk Lake in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Craig McCaa/Bureau of Land Management Alaska

Proposed Interior Department rules for drilling in the Western Arctic are spurring two contradictory views: that President Joe Biden has thwarted an oil boom in northern Alaska or paved the way for one.

Which perspective turns out to be right has significant implications for climate change and the future of the oil industry in the Arctic, considering the size of the petroleum reserves in the region.

The Bureau of Land Management proposal, which could strengthen Interior’s ability to block future drilling on protected lands in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, follows Biden’s controversial decision earlier this year to approve the massive Willow oil project in the same reserve. Drillers say the NPR-A rules could infringe on their development rights, while green groups say it fails to shift the NPR-A away from its origins as a potential stockpile of crude oil. How Interior officials apply the new language could determine which side will eventually claim victory.


Earthjustice attorney Jeremy Lieb said the proposed NPR-A rules, while an improvement, don’t address the serious question of how ongoing oil development in the reserve will “align with climate commitments.”

“Those are big gaps,” he said.

The draft rules, which are expected to be finalized in the coming months, would direct BLM to consider cumulative impacts of oil and gas activity in the NPR-A — which some argue could include big consequences such as climate change — and require actions to mitigate those effects. The proposal doesn’t explicitly bar development across the roughly 13 million acres of the reserve that are currently set aside for conservation, but it could make drilling far more difficult where it is allowed. BLM is also proposing to potentially change or expand the boundaries of the reserve’s most protected lands every five years, which oil and gas supporters say could put the most prime drilling areas out of reach.

“This rule generally sets aside most of the areas that are most prospective to oil and gas development,” fumed John Boyle, Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, during a November congressional hearing. He said the proposed regulations would make it “technologically infeasible for any company to put together a development plan.”

The dispute underscores how the Biden administration is trying to traverse a middle ground between thwarting fossil fuel development to prove its allegiance to climate action while also following legal mandates to carry out a national oil program.

The administration’s high-wire act is perhaps most visible — and criticized — in the Arctic, which NOAA said earlier this month experienced its sixth-warmest year on record. Thawing permafrost and changing temperatures are creating climate refugees in the region by forcing the relocation of villages.

Exacerbating the administration’s political challenges is the fact that the NPR-A, perhaps more than other swaths of public land in the country, is governed by laws that prioritize oil and gas. For example, the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act of 1976 directs Interior to manage the NPR-A’s oil and gas leasing program. Signed by then-President Gerald Ford during a period of tumultuous energy prices, the law was meant to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil.

“This is an oil and gas reserve,” said Mark Myers, a commissioner on the U.S. Arctic Research Commission and a former oil and gas regulator for the state of Alaska. “The requirements were always that oil and gas was a high priority — not an exclusive priority by any means, but a high priority.”

Steve Feldgus, deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, acknowledged oil’s prominence in the region during a Nov. 29 hearing of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

Pressed by Republicans angry over the proposed rules, Feldgus said the NPR-A “generates tens of millions of dollars in oil and gas revenue each year and will remain an important energy resource for some time.”

A 45-year refresh

The NPR-A covers 23 million acres of public land scattered with Alaska Native villages.

About half of the reserve has been set aside for conservation, greatly restricting oil and gas development due to sensitive wetlands, caribou habitat and the annual migration of thousands of birds. Where drilling is allowed, it must be done with “maximum protection” of the surface environment. The Biden administration is aiming to redefine what “maximum protection” means in areas of potential oil and gas development, as well as potentially expand the borders where drilling is limited.

For example, the BLM plan would strengthen language outlining the agency’s role in protecting the NPR-A’s surface resources.

When making any oil and gas decisions, the proposed rules require that BLM adopt mitigation measures to offset potential damages or significant changes that those oil and gas activity would cause.

That effort would have to address a broad array of potential impacts. They include indirect impacts that are “later in time or farther removed in distance” as well as cumulative impacts, “those that result from the incremental effects of proposed activities when added to the effects of other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable actions,” according to the proposed rules.

BLM, which did not provide comment for this story, said in the proposal that it would have the authority to “delay or deny proposed activities that would cause reasonably foreseeable and significantly adverse effects on surface resources.”

BLM wrote in the proposal that the conditions of the Arctic have changed dramatically since 1977 when the current approach to protecting lands was first inked.

“With climate change warming the Arctic more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet, we must do everything within our control to meet the highest standards of care to protect this fragile ecosystem,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement when the proposal was released in September.

A regional litmus test

The biggest test for BLM’s rules may be at Teshekpuk Lake, a protected area that drillers are eyeing for oil and gas production.

The area has extensive, marshy wetlands along the Arctic Coast. It’s home to bird species that migrate from around the world every year and caribou herds numbering the tens of thousands that support nearby Alaska Native villages.

In a 2018 assessment, BLM noted that the area has “high potential for oil and gas resources.” It’s located just west of ConocoPhillips’ Willow project — an $8 billion project moving forward this winter in the NPR-A. Both ConocoPhillips and companies led by a well-known oil and gas driller, Bill Armstrong, hold existing oil and gas rights that hug Teshekpuk Lake special area’s borders.

The BLM has said the proposed rules will not affect existing leases, but companies are nervous that it will. Biden’s rules would open the door to change the boundaries of the Teshekpuk Lake special area, and the only way to expand that area would be to include the surrounding lands — many of which are currently leased to oil companies.

Armstrong, who did not respond to a request for comment, has gathered roughly 1 million gross acres of federal leases around the Teshekpuk Lake special area.

In a December letter to BLM, Armstrong Oil and Gas Vice President Nathan Lowe said the agency may be infringing on the company’s valid drilling rights in the region by holding authority to block infrastructure that are critical to development.

Lowe also argued that the Biden administration is trying to prioritize land management over oil and gas management in the reserve, in conflict with congressional mandates.

“If Congress wanted BLM to protect surface values of the Petroleum Reserve over the development of petroleum resources, it would have clearly designated such lands,” he wrote.

Industry officials have long expressed interest in pushing deeper into the Teshekpuk Lake region, where they say they are confident there are large oil deposits.

In a 2018 interview with Alaska Public Media, ConocoPhillips Alaska President Joe Marushack applauded the then-Trump administration for trying to be more flexible for drilling interests near Teshekpuk. The Trump administration rolled back drilling and leasing restrictions in much of the reserve, a move that was later reversed by the Biden administration.

“We agree that the area around Teshekpuk Lake ought to be sectioned off. Not as much as is sectioned off right now; we think that you can still do very responsible development in areas around that,” Marushack said.

A spokesperson for ConocoPhillips said the Biden proposed rule “upsets the balance” between conservation and oil and gas activity. The company declined to be interviewed.

“If adopted, the proposed rule would significantly impede future development in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), diminishing our nation’s energy security and reducing union jobs and economic benefits for Alaska Native communities, residents of Alaska, and our country,” the company wrote in a statement.

‘The most imminent threat’

Many environmentalists say the Biden proposal is rightly focusing on how to care more for the reserve’s land and its wildlife.

The Center for Western Priorities estimates that 9 out of 10 public comments support the rules, based on a random sample of 10,000 comments. The public review period on the proposal closed Dec. 7 with more than 90,000 submitted comments overall.

The center said roughly 12 percent of reviewed comments called for weakening or eliminating the proposed rules.

“The sheer number of comments submitted to the Interior department shows how much Americans care about the Arctic,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director at the Center for Western Priorities, in a statement.

“The Arctic is experiencing some of the most severe effects of climate change, and these comments recognize there are some places that are too fragile to drill,” he said.

Ben Tettlebaum, director and senior staff attorney for the Wilderness Society, applauded the BLM for its focus on conserving “the Reserve’s land and resources rather than allow[ing] unimpeded expansion of oil and gas activities.”

But he added that the Wilderness Society is asking the BLM to fortify the reserve against development.

The agency should do an assessment of the conditions of the reserve’s lands at least every five years, document changes and decide what kind of mitigation would be required to protect those lands, the organization says.

“Such a proactive process would mean that measures would be in place to better protect surface resources before BLM is faced with, e.g., a specific oil and gas project proposal,” Tettlebaum said.

Other environmentalists say Biden’s proposal doesn’t go far enough to address the extensive oil and gas leases that are already held by companies in the reserve.

A form letter submitted to BLM from hundreds of individuals as a public comment said the proposed rules fail to tackle “the most imminent threat to the region and the planet—the over two million acres of existing oil leases in the Western Arctic that this administration inherited.”

“Development on these existing leases—like Willow—threatens the sensitive habitat of the Western Arctic and the nation’s ability to meet its climate goals,” the letter says.

There is also a push, from groups like the Wilderness Society and Earthjustice, for the BLM to ink a climate analysis specific to the Western Arctic. Climate impact reviews are often included in environmental reviews for proposed oil projects. But because of the NPR-A’s oil and gas potential, greens are pressing for a federal paper trail that documents how drilling in the reserve could contribute to climate change.

Lieb, with Earthjustice, said the Biden administration should include an assessment of how to make the oil and gas program in the NPR-A compatible with climate policies.

“Just because they approved Willow doesn’t mean that they are not willing to consider ways to improve their decision making and to put in place protections that will ideally ensure that there isn’t another [Willow],” he said. “We’re not going to not going to stop pushing against further development that isn’t consistent with responding to climate change.”