BLM clears way for oil, gas development on federal lands in Alaska petroleum reserve

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management issued a final decision Friday that it said will open the way for the first oil and gas production from federal lands in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

The decision is a shift from the alternative that BLM had earlier selected as its preferred option. But it aligns with the alternative chosen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

BLM-Alaska spokeswoman Lesli Ellis-Wouters said BLM had indicated it would take into account the Corps' decision in making its final determination. If the two agencies were not on the same page, ConocoPhillips Alaska would not have been able to go forward, she said.

The two alternatives are similar, she said, but the selected alternative provides for a smaller gravel footprint. There also is a "robust" mitigation package that will provide for monitoring and developing a plan for future development in the reserve, she said.

As part of that, ConocoPhillips Alaska is to provide $8 million for a mitigation fund that would be used to offset impacts to habitat and subsistence resources and develop a regional plan.

A coalition of conservation groups expressed disappointment with the decision, saying it would allow for construction of an 8-mile road through sensitive wetlands and tundra. The groups called on BLM to make sure that special areas set aside within the reserve for protection remain protected.

The roughly 23 million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska is the largest single block of federally managed land in the United States.

The BLM, in a 2013 plan, identified about 11 million acres within the reserve for protection of natural values while making about 12 million acres available for development.

Late last month, ConocoPhillips Alaska announced that it was slowing the pace of investment on the project, known as Greater Mooses Tooth 1, citing permitting delays and requirements and current low oil prices. Spokeswoman Amy Burnett said by email Friday that the company was pleased that BLM had approved a road route selected by the Corps in its decision but said was still reviewing details on the decision.