Obama proposing new leasing in the Western Arctic Reserve

In an effort to address high fuel prices, in his May 14, 2011 weekly address President Obama announced plans to sell federal oil and gas leases in the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska (also known as the Western Arctic Reserve) and to end billions of dollars in subsidies to major oil companies. 

Obama called on the Department of the Interior to hold annual lease sales in the Reserve, but stated that sensitive areas will be kept off-limits.  The Wilderness Society has advocated for balance in the plan under development for the Reserve — protecting high-ecological value areas and areas used for subsistence while also allowing for oil and gas development.  The President’s call for protection of sensitive areas appears to support that approach.

Obama’s approach essentially acknowledges that unique habitats in the Reserve — such as Teshekpuk Lake and the Utukok Uplands — are too fragile and important, including for subsistence uses, to be opened to oil and gas production.  Presidents of both parties have long-recognized the ecological importance of the Teshekpuk Lake region.

Covering more than 22 million acres — about the size of the state of Indiana — the Reserve is part of Alaska’s North Slope where the Brooks Range mountains decline into vast tundra plains alongside the Arctic Ocean.  Riddled by numerous wetlands critical to breeding waterfowl, the Reserve’s tundra is teeming with wildlife such as caribou and bears.

NPRA map. Click for larger view.

Created in its current form as part of the Naval Petroleum Reserve Production Act of 1976, the Reserve has seen oil and gas exploration for years.  The Department of the Interior is in the process of revising the overall management  plan for the entire Reserve.  

Regarding Arctic Ocean drilling, the Obama Administration currently is reviewing previously-developed environmental analyses and Shell’s May 2011 submittals of Beaufort and Chukchi Sea exploration plans.  While he did mention expedited permitting in the Arctic, the President’s speech does little to change the status quo regarding Arctic Ocean drilling, nor does it change the fact that there are still major obstacles to overcome before drilling is allowed in the Arctic Ocean.  Unproven spill cleanup techniques and distant Coast Guard facilities, coupled with darkness, high winds, fog, and shifting sea ice presenting dangerous operating conditions that must be taken into consideration.

Obama’s proposal also includes eliminating billions of dollars in taxpayer handouts to oil companies that are making tens of billions in profits from high oil prices — an idea that TWS agrees with.  With industry profits skyrocketing, and prices at the pump over $4 a gallon in many places across the country, cutting tax breaks to major oil companies will help level the playing field for other, cleaner forms of energy like wind and solar development.

Photo: Teshekpuk Lake. Photo by Banerjee.

Map: Courtesy Audubon Alaska.