Developing the National Petroleum Reserve

NEPA takes a back seat to oil drilling in Alaska?

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently released a Record of Decision (ROD) in connection with a § 404 permit for a 73 acre wetland fill in northern Alaska.  That by itself would make the permit a major federal action potentially causing a “significant” effect on the human environment within the meaning of NEPA § 102(2)(C).  But this is no ordinary wetland fill.  This is the first attempt, being mounted by ConocoPhillips, to access the “National Petroleum Reserve” with a 7 mile access road, pipeline, and associated drill sites.  The ROD was done in connection with the Corps’s permitting decision. {See a copy here.} The permit to drill on the federal site, specifically the “Great Mooses Tooth” unit within the NPR lands, is to be issued or denied by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  {See a map of the different units here: NS_Unit_Map2015}

That makes BLM the “lead agency” for NEPA purposes and it was their EIS generated for this decision, technically.  One question that arises from the Corps’s ROD, though, is what attention was given to the “No Action Alternative,” a necessity under NEPA. shutterstock_191978009Environmental opponents have quite reasonably worried that this incursion into so remote a corner of Alaska could bring follow-on attempts to further access our petroleum “reserve” there—adjacent to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Once the infrastructure is in place, adding to or enhancing it will certainly be less environmentally threatening than other, similar developments in comparatively more pristine areas.  Indeed, with oil prices now seemingly stuck somewhere between cheap and alarmingly cheap, their worry begs the further question: what role has NEPA played, either in the Corps’s thinking or in BLM’s, to approve this project at this particular juncture?  BLM has yet to formally sign off.  But it will be interesting to see how its EIS informed the ultimate trade-offs being struck in northwest Alaska.  Keep an eye out for our follow-up post.

{Photo: the Coleville River Delta, not too far from the proposed project}

I teach environmental, natural resources, and administrative law at Penn State Law. Before teaching I was an enforcement lawyer at U.S. EPA. Along the way I've done work for environmental nonprofits and written a fair bit about NEPA.
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