Along the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—the long-fought over stretch of wilderness that President Donald Trump has been working hard to open to drilling—a successful lease sale is looking less and less likely before the end of the year.
But west of the refuge, in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), the Interior Department is moving ahead with ConocoPhillips' Willow project. The project is a massive development expected to produce approximately 590 million barrels of oil over its 30-year life, and it could include a central processing facility, up to 250 wells, an airstrip, pipelines and a gravel mine.
On March 20, the Bureau of Land Management opened a public comment period on the project that will last until May 4—colliding head-on with the coronavirus and making it harder for nearby communities like Nuiqsut to weigh in. Nuiqsut is home to fewer than 500 people and is nearly 90 percent native Alaskan. The village, which is already surrounded on most sides by drilling, is about seven miles from where the gravel mine is planned.
At the time the BLM opened the comment period, one-fourth of Americans had been ordered to stay home due to the virus, a figure that's by Tuesday had grown to more than 90% of the U.S. population, or at least 311 million people.
The public comment period will end just a few weeks after the pandemic is projected to peak in Alaska, and almost certainly before life has returned to normal.
"Just think about how challenging it is in Alaska," said Adam Kolton, the executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League. "A lot of the people most impacted by potential oil and gas projects are in native villages, where sometimes internet access is limited, not widely available to everybody and public meetings with in-person dialogue are one of the ways that villages have to engage with the process."
Nuiqsut is currently not reporting any Covid-19 cases—and hopes to keep it that way, which makes adherence to Alaska's shelter in place order so crucial. Health care options in the village are limited—the medical clinic is staffed by community health aides and is serviced by a doctor who visits the village for a week every three months. In March, Nuiqsut was one of several North Slope villages that began restricting access by land, sea or air.
"We are bunkered down," said Martha Itta, the tribal administrator of Nuiqsut. Over in Prudhoe Bay, roughly 75 miles away, an oilfield worker with BP recently tested positive, which has set the community on edge. "But there's also a lot of concern about this project," said Itta.
It's a complicated time to be thinking about drilling for oil in the Arctic, where it's costly to get supplies in and the environmental stakes are particularly high. Since December, three major U.S. banks—Goldman Sachs, JP MorganChase and Wells Fargo—have joined the ranks of several global banks and financial institutions and said they will not finance drilling in the Arctic, specifically in the wildlife refuge.
And then there's the price of oil. which has plummeted since March, thanks to a dispute between Russia and Saudi Arabia that created a glut of oil worldwide. As a result, ConocoPhillips and Oil Search both announced in mid-March that they would scale back their spending in Alaska. ConocoPhillips said it would reduce its annual spending in the state by roughly $200 million, and Oil Search, a Papua New Guinea-based company, said it would reduce spending by roughly $70 million in 2020.
"The bottom line is that—even before the Covid crisis—there never really was a business case for drilling in the Arctic refuge," said Ben Cushing, a representative of the Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign. "This was always about the political case, which has been driven by special interests and politicians who do their bidding."
Trump has sought to open the Arctic refuge to drilling since entering office and has been working on multiple fronts to do so. The goal is to get leases sold; once that happens, it's hard to undo. But as time ticks toward the end of Trump's first term, it's unclear how close he will come to this goal.
Since late last year, Interior has been expected to release the finalization of its environmental review, which would clear the way for the department to schedule a lease sale.
But it's not clear when that will happen, or how successful a lease sale might be. "Given the fact that the administration has still failed to conduct seismic testing, which it hoped to do for the last couple of years, there's no seismic data on the Coastal Plain" of the refuge, where drilling would take place, said Cushing. "So no one even knows how much oil is potentially there."
In a sign of just how much the administration is pinning on a lease sale there, Trump's budget for 2021 projected it would produce a billion dollars in revenue. In early March, assistant Interior secretary Susan Combs reiterated the expectation that a lease sale could garner a billion dollars in revenue, even after Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) said that would require every single acre of the Coastal Plain to be leased for $678—more than 60 times the amount of the average lease sold in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska in 2019.
A week later, BLM Deputy Director Michael Nedd testified before the House Natural Resources Committee that the agency still expected to bring in a billion dollars in revenue, but clarified that it would be leasing just 400,000 acres of the Coastal Plain.
"So they're only going to offer 400,000 acres and they're assuming a billion dollars—that's remarkable," Huffman said at the hearing. "Because if you offered the entire 1.5 million acres of the Coastal Plain you'd have to get $678 per acre from that lease sale in order to get to a billion dollars."
He added, "If you only did 400,000 you'd have to get a lot more than that. Do you think that's a reasonable offer to assume?"
Nedd replied that he would get back to him.
While it's unclear whether the Trump administration will be able to make inroads in the Arctic refuge, the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska to the west has been a different story. There the question has not been whether the area will see expanded drilling, but rather how much.
The public comment period is for a supplemental environmental review of the Willow project, which came after the company revised its plan in response to concerns raised by residents of Nuiqsut. The new plan scraps a past design that called for the construction of a gravel island, instead relying on an existing dock to receive shipments and the construction of a new ice road to transport any goods or equipment.
Normally, the release of a new plan would spur meetings within the village as locals processed the implications of a project and figured out how best to comment. Now, they instead are relying on teleconferencing—an imperfect solution at best.
"Now that everyone is using it, there are members who can never get through to call in," said Itta, the tribal administrator. "It's hard to really understand what is being said or done. It's not effective."
When the BLM announced the public comment period, BLM Alaska State Director Chad Padgett said that the release of the supplemental review would give the public an opportunity to provide input on the plan. "Public involvement is critical to responsibly developing our natural resources in Alaska," he said.
The tribe and a consortium of environmental groups have asked the Interior Department to extend the public comment period.
"To be clear, holding the minimally required public comment period in the middle of a global health crisis does not support public participation; it suppresses it," a group of eight conservation and environmental advocacy groups, including the Alaska Wilderness League, Audubon Alaska and Earthjustice, wrote to the department. The way that the Trump Administration and ConocoPhillips are operatings "appears to be specifically targeted at suppressing the public's ability to review and engage in the evaluation of this project," they wrote.
Lesli Ellis-Wouters, the communications director for BLM in Alaska, said the agency is aware that connectivity within Nuiqsut could be an issue, and that they are trying to find solutions to ensure residents are able to provide comments and stay informed. "We hope to have multiple avenues for our rural communities to join (Nuiqsut and Utqiagvik, especially) such as telephone call-in with a paper copy of the presentation and Facebook Live," she said. "But, we haven't finalized anything yet."
Itta said that might work.
As long as the internet and phone connections are stable at the time of the call, she said, she feels as if people will find a way to get involved. But it's impossible to say what the turnout would be like.
"We've been getting more and more people showing up to the public meetings because of the growing concern about drilling here, and more people are aware of how important these meetings are," she said. "I'm curious to see what the outcome would be" if it all went online or via phone.
UPDATE: On April 23, the Bureau of Land Management held a public meeting with the village of Nuiqsut via Zoom about ConocoPhillips' proposed Willow project. Itta said she and others asked that the public comment period be suspended until after the pandemic had eased and stay-at-home orders were lifted. Those requests, she said, were denied. "I myself was muted after my initial comment, and they would not unmute me," she wrote in a follow-up letter to the BLM. "In another meeting I attended, a commenter was muted because BLM did not like his passionate language." Ellis-Wouters said six public meetings held via Zoom have had 150 attendees. She said the mute function has only been used once "when a curse word was used." Without responding directly to Itta's assertion that she had been muted, Ellis-Wouters added: "We encourage and welcome public testimony as it is an important part of the review process." Itta has said that while someone else at the meeting was muted after swearing, she did not swear during her testimony. "I believe it was because my testimony was too powerful," she said.
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