In Alaska’s Western Arctic, Big Things Can Have Small Beginnings

Unmatched for its extraordinary ecological values and subsistence resources, the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska is rich in wilderness and wildlife. But development in the Reserve begins next winter, as ConocoPhillips seeks to exploit this pristine place in the name of oil profits. A new piece from Politico investigates how we reached this new reality.

The thermometer reads -11 degrees today in Nuiqsut, Alaska, a small Alaska Native village located in the northwest corner of Alaska, just 35 miles from the Beaufort Sea. Those temperatures are projected to remain below zero next week…and stay there. For a while.

Winter has clearly arrived in one of the most remote and pristine places in North America. Nuiqsut sits along the border of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (hereafter shortened to simply the “Reserve”), which at nearly 23 million acres is the largest tract of undisturbed public land in the United States. In a state home to iconic destinations like Denali National Park, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the country’s two largest national forests, the Reserve sits humbly in its corner along the coast of the Arctic Ocean.  Its unmatched wildlife – including two major caribou herds, millions of migratory birds, bears, wolves and more – lives largely in peace and solitude.

But while much of that wildlife migrates to warmer temps each winter or hides away in hibernation, at this time next year a new visitor will be ramping up its activity in the Reserve. In February, the Obama administration, via the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), gave final approval to ConocoPhillips for its peculiarly named Greater Mooses Tooth Unit-1 project (GMT1), a decision which has opened the door to the first oil production on federal lands within the Reserve. And in November, Conoco gave the $900 million project the internal green light, including construction of a gravel drilling pad, a 7.7-mile road, and pipeline and associated facilities for an initial drilling program of nine development wells. Construction is slated to begin in late 2016 or early 2017.

Against that backdrop, Politico’s Alec MacGillis has written a piece – How Obama Let Big Oil Drill in the Pristine Alaska Wilderness examining the history of ConocoPhillips in Alaska and investigating the sequence of events that led to Big Oil’s entry into a little-known American treasure.

To date only exploratory drilling has occurred on federal land within the Reserve. Conoco expects actual production at GMT1 to come online as soon as 2018, although a nearby project on private lands, the Colville Delta-5 project (CD5), has already started producing oil, helping to make GMT1 possible. Located within the boundary of the Reserve but set on private Alaska Native corporation land, the CD5 project began drilling in August 2015 and in October ConocoPhillips announced in a release that the drill site – located near the Colville River Delta – had begun producing oil. ConocoPhillips has also applied for a second project stemming off of GMT1 – Greater Mooses Tooth-2 (GMT2), which would be situated a few miles deeper into the Reserve and would require an extended road, more pipeline, etc. The permanent roads and bridges permitted for these projects will change the face of the lands that have until now remained untouched and will impact wildlife, wetlands, and nearby communities’ subsistence activities.

But equally important is the precedent GMT1 has set. The project is the first to move forward since the Obama administration finalized its balanced management plan for the Reserve in 2013, and not only has BLM elected against fully enforcing the Reserve’s plan but it has also failed to proceed in the most environmentally sensitive way possible. The final plan for GMT1 includes a permanent road instead of a temporary ice road and seasonal drilling; it also allows for encroachment into a buffer zone that exists to protect the Fish Creek area, a valuable subsistence resource for local communities.

As you’ll read, even those that have supported development in the Reserve have been taken aback by Conoco’s aggressive proposals for development. Alaska Natives, conservation groups and more have fought to preserve the region’s wilderness, wildlife and subsistence values. Nevertheless politics, money and insider influence have pushed GMT1 forward and opened the door to a potential spider-web of additional expansion. Already, Conoco’s CD-5 project allowed for GMT1, which could lead to GMT2 and so on.

On paper, Conoco’s initial development on federal land might seem small – an eight-mile road, a drilling pad, a handful of infrastructure buildings. But you know what they say: big things can rise from small beginnings.


An excerpt from How Obama Let Big Oil Drill in the Pristine Alaska Wilderness:

From his seat in the small plane flying over the largest remaining swath of American wilderness, Bruce Babbitt thought he could envision the legacy of one of his proudest achievements as Interior secretary in the Clinton administration…Now, below him, Babbitt saw an oil field—one carefully built and operated to avoid permanent roads and other scars on the vast expanse of tundra and lakes.

Under the deal he’d negotiated just before leaving Interior in 2000, that would be the only kind of drilling he thought would be allowed in the 23 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which, despite its name, is a pristine region home to one of the world’s largest caribou herds and giant flocks of migratory birds. The compromise was fair and, he hoped, enduring—clear-eyed about the need for more domestic oil but resolute in defense of the wilderness.

The deal lasted barely 15 years.

In February, the Obama administration granted the ConocoPhillips oil company the right to drill in the reserve. The Greater Mooses Tooth project, as it is known, upended the protections that Babbitt had engineered, saving the oil company tens of millions of dollars and setting what conservationists see as a foreboding precedent.

How ConocoPhillips overcame years of resistance from courts, native Alaskans, environmental groups and several federal agencies is the story of how Washington really works. It is a story that surprised even a veteran of the political machine like Babbitt.

Read the full article here.