Special Topics in Environmental Management

Arctic O&G Development: BLM Offers Alternatives

The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has released its Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for development of oil and gas (O&G) resources on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) Coastal Plain. The DEIS is required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and would cover leasing only; actual development would be subject to additional NEPA review and is not likely to begin for many years.

Arctic drilling, ANWR, oil and gas

Vladimir Endovitskiy / Shutterstock.com

Authorizing Legislation

In December 2017, President Donald Trump acceded to years of lobbying by the O&G industry and Alaska’s congressional delegation by signing a bill that requires the secretary of the Interior, acting through the BLM, to establish and administer a competitive O&G program for the leasing, development, production, and transportation of O&G in and from the ANWR.

The DEIS covers Section 1002, which comprises 1,563,500 acres of the ANWR, which itself occupies 19.3 million acres. Four leasing alternatives are offered, including a No Action Alternative (Alternative A), which would open no portion of Section 1002 to O&G leasing. But, given the requirements of the 2017 law, the BLM includes this alternative only as a baseline to compare the impacts of the other alternatives.

No preferred alternative is named in the DEIS; the BLM states that it will identify its preferred alternative in the Final EIS (FEIS).

As noted, any proposed specific production activities would receive separate NEPA reviews. The BLM authorized officer may require additional site-specific terms and conditions before authorizing any O&G activity based on the project level NEPA analysis.

Notice of the DEIS was published in the December 28, 2018, Federal Register (FR); the BLM will accept comments on the draft through February 11, 2019.

Rich in Resources

Citing data published in 2005, the BLM notes that Section 1002 contains an estimated 7.687 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil and 7.04 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of technically recoverable natural gas. Due to high costs associated with operating in the Arctic, it is extremely unlikely that all technically recoverable resources would be produced, says the BLM. The U.S. Energy Information Administration has estimated that a total of approximately 3.4 billion barrels of oil (BBO) would be produced in the ANWR by 2050. Estimated natural gas production from the Coastal Plain ranges from 0 to 7 TCF of gas produced.

Conservationists consider the ANWR one of the last truly wild regions on earth. The area supports a wide array of wildlife, including the Porcupine caribou herd (PCH) and special status species, including the polar bear.

About 9,000 members of the Gwich’in Nation, the northernmost Native American group on the continent, live in 15 communities across the Northwest Territories, Yukon Territory, and Northern Alaska. The Gwich’in still engage in traditional subsistence and are dependent on the PCH. Other indigenous groups in the area depend on fishing. The DEIS recognizes that O&G development could have potential impacts on subsistence users, both from impacts on subsistence species and from direct disturbance of hunts, displacement of resources from traditional harvest areas, and hunter avoidance of industrialized areas.


Under the three alternatives, different portions of Section 1002 would be made available for leasing, and other portions would be classified as No Surface Occupancy (NSO). Construction of surface O&G facilities would be prohibited in NSO areas to protect non-O&G resources. Alternative B would have the fewest NSO stipulations; Alternative C would subject a large portion of the program area to NSO stipulations; and Alternative D would also subject large portions to NSO stipulations while additionally including provisions to specifically protect the PCH and biological and ecological resources.


Release of the DEIS prompted criticism from many conservation and indigenous groups.

“The rush and fast pace that they are moving in only proves that they have no intention of addressing our concerns,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. “Ninety-five percent of the Arctic is opened to oil and gas. Leave the remaining five percent alone.”

“Of all of the Trump administration’s conservation rollbacks, the drive to sell off one of America’s wildest places for dirty, high-risk oil-drilling ranks among the worst,” said Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society. “Americans have no desire to drill the Arctic Refuge, and this action is pure pandering to special interests in the oil lobby.”

Supporters of the BLM’s action include Alaska Governor Michael Dunleavy.

“Alaskans have anticipated the release of the draft environmental statement for decades,” said Dunleavy. “My administration and Alaskans overwhelmingly support ANWR development, and we are eager to inform and educate our fellow Americans that it will be done utilizing the highest environmental standards and safeguards to protect its land, waters, and wildlife.”

Erik Milito, director the American Petroleum Institute’s Upstream and Industry Operations agreed on the importance of the DEIS.

“Confirming areas for energy exploration is a good first step toward responsible natural gas and oil development,” said Milito. “Adding new avenues for domestic production can help put downward pressure on prices while also providing new jobs for Americans and potentially adding billions of dollars in additional revenue to the state and federal government in the coming decades. The earliest that production from the coastal plain could start would be after 2031 because of the time needed to acquire leases, explore and develop the required infrastructure for the production of oil and natural gas.”

The 2017 law requires that at least two lease sales be held by December 22, 2024, and that each sale offer for lease at least 400,000 acres of the highest hydrocarbon potential (HCP) lands within the Coastal Plain, allowing for up to 2,000 surface acres of federal land to be covered by production and support facilities.

The DEIS is available here.

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