A Massachusetts-sized chunk of Alaska is set to be opened to oil and gas drilling, and a similarly-sized area opened to mining, in a plan released Friday.
The Bureau of Land Management plan is expected to get finalized just days before President Donald Trump leaves office. The last-minute push on the western Alaska plan is part of the Trump administration’s effort to open broad swaths of Alaska to oil drillers. Those efforts also include the Interior Department’s scheduled oil and gas lease sale within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 6.
Environmental groups expect the incoming Biden administration to take steps to restore some of the environmental protections that the plan proposes dropping.
The land bureau on Friday published the final environmental review for a proposed management plan that will govern management for the next 20 years or more of 13.5 million acres of federal land spread across a region the size of Oregon. The region stretches between the Bering Sea and Denali National Park.
Over 5 Million Acres
Of that area, over 5 million acres are targeted to be newly opened to mineral leasing, including oil and gas development, and to mining. The region is highly vulnerable to climate change and is warming faster than the rest of the U.S.
The final plan is open for an official protest period that ends Jan. 4, and a final decision is expected before Jan. 20, when Biden takes office.
The land bureau considers the plan—which opens nearly 2 million acres of sensitive wildlife habitat to drilling—an approach that provides “balance.”
“We’ve worked hard to develop a plan that strikes a balance between the protection of critical subsistence resources, development of local resources, and conservation of important fish and wildlife habitat,” the land bureau’s Alaska director, Chad Padgett, said in a statement.
The bureau didn’t immediately respond to specific questions about the plan Friday.
Peregrine falcon nesting areas, raptor nesting habitat, caribou winter habitat, and other lands currently designated as “areas of critical environmental concern” will lose those protections and become available for oil and gas companies to develop, according to the proposed plan.
In all, more than 1.8 million acres—a land area larger than Delaware—will lose special environmental protections under the plan. Dropping those protections gives the land bureau “flexibility” in managing those areas in the future, according to the proposal.
The western Alaska plan is the culmination of the Obama administration’s effort to replace a 1981 plan for federal lands in Alaska between Denali National Park and the Bering Sea. The land bureau kicked off the process in 2013 and held public meetings through 2015.
Alaska’s congressional delegation, including Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chair Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), have been outspoken proponents of opening as much of the state to oil, gas, and other mineral development as possible. Committee spokeswoman Grace Jang declined to immediately comment Friday.
The American Petroleum Institute applauded the plan, saying it helps to ensure that oil and gas will continue to be a source of revenue for the state of Alaska.
“Given estimates that oil and natural gas will continue to be significant for the world’s energy needs, energy in western Alaska could be even more important in the decades to come,” API Senior Policy Advisor Amy Emmert said. “The BLM created this customized plan for the safe and responsible development of Alaskan energy with native communities and local governments.”
The plan affects Alaska Indigenous communities’ ability to hunt for caribou and subsist off the land, said Suzanne Little, an Alaska-based officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts, which focuses on conservation.
“If the land and waters are being mined, that makes it difficult,” Little said.
Randi Spivak, public lands director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the incoming Biden administration could revise the plan to reinstate wildlife habitat protections and close land that the plan proposes opening for fossil fuels and mining development.
Areas of critical environmental concern “were put there for a very good reason. You can’t just wipe them away without a very good justification,” Spivak said.
She added that the Trump administration is trying to solidify its “scorched-earth policy” toward dropping environmental protections for Alaska wildlands.
The process stalled until 2019, when the Trump administration issued a draft of the plan that called for opening more than 5 million acres of federal land to oil and gas drilling, and more than 4.7 million acres to mining.