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Biden policy aims to block Arctic oil drilling for conservation

Over a century ago, the U.S. government set aside 23 million acres of Alaska’s North Slope to serve as an emergency oil supply. This vast, remote region, known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), has long been viewed as a major growth opportunity for the oil and gas industry. However, President Joe Biden is now moving to block Arctic oil drilling and gas development across roughly half of this territory.

Key aspects of Arctic oil drilling

Arctic oil drilling is a complex and controversial subject due to the extreme conditions, environmental concerns, and geopolitical implications involved. Here are its various aspects:

Geography and reserves

The Arctic region encompasses the area around the North Pole, extending into territories of several countries including the United States (Alaska), Canada, Russia, Norway, and Greenland (Denmark). This region is believed to hold a significant portion of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas reserves.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic holds about 13% of the world’s undiscovered conventional oil resources and 30% of its undiscovered natural gas.

Technical challenges

Drilling for oil in the Arctic is technologically challenging and expensive. The extreme cold, ice coverage, and remote locations complicate every aspect of exploration and production.

Winter darkness and severe weather conditions restrict operations to a limited part of the year. Special equipment and techniques are required to deal with the freezing temperatures and to minimize environmental impact.

Environmental impact

The environmental risks of Arctic oil drilling are significant. The Arctic ecosystem is fragile, and its wildlife, including polar bears, seals, and various bird species, are susceptible to disturbance.

Oil spills pose a severe threat due to the difficulty of carrying out effective clean-up operations in icy waters. The slow degradation rates in cold climates mean that oil can persist longer in the environment, exacerbating its impact.

Indigenous communities

Many indigenous communities in the Arctic depend on the natural environment for their subsistence and cultural practices. Oil drilling and the accompanying industrial activity can affect the land and wildlife resources that these communities rely on.

There are concerns about the social and economic impacts on indigenous peoples, including changes to traditional lifestyles and potential benefits such as employment opportunities.

Regulatory and political landscape

Arctic oil drilling is subject to intense regulatory scrutiny to manage environmental risks. Countries have different regulations and levels of enforcement. International agreements and national policies also influence the extent and nature of drilling activities. Political decisions about drilling rights and environmental protections can lead to significant shifts in the operational landscape.

Climate change considerations

The role of Arctic drilling in contributing to climate change is a key issue in global discussions about energy production. Burning fossil fuels extracted from the Arctic contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

Moreover, the Arctic is warming significantly faster than the rest of the planet, leading to melting ice and changing habitats, which further complicates the environmental calculus of drilling operations.

Biden’s conservation efforts

The Biden administration’s proposed initiative, set to be finalized within days, marks one of the most sweeping efforts yet by the president to limit oil and gas exploration on federal lands.

This move aligns with Biden’s broader campaign which promises to boost land conservation and fight climate change. As he seeks a second term, Biden is doubling down on his commitment to protecting the environment.

Industry concerns regarding Arctic oil

Interestingly, the changes wouldn’t affect ConocoPhillips’s controversial 600-million-barrel Willow oil project in the NPR-A. However, oil industry leaders say the plan is more expansive than initially anticipated and threatens to make it nearly impossible to build another megaproject in the region.

This has sparked concerns from companies with holdings in the NPR-A, which was once viewed as a promising growth area for the industry. In recent years, interest in the region has surged again due to major discoveries, and tapping into its reservoirs could yield decades of oil production.

Protecting sensitive ecosystems

The proposed regulation would limit future oil development in some 13 million acres (20,000 square miles) of designated “special areas” within the reserve, including territory currently under lease. There would also be an outright prohibition on new leasing in 10.6 million acres.

The administration argues that these changes are necessary to balance oil development with the protection of sensitive landscapes that provide habitat for polar bears, migratory birds, and the 61,500-strong Teshekpuk caribou herd.

As Interior Secretary Deb Haaland stated, “We must do everything within our control to meet the highest standards of care to protect this fragile ecosystem.”

The future of Arctic oil development

The proposed rule would also create a formal program for expanding protected areas at least once every five years, making it difficult to undo those designations. Additionally, it would raise the bar for future development elsewhere in the reserve.

While the Interior Department has stated that the regulation wouldn’t affect existing leases, the proposed rule text doesn’t offer a similar, explicit assurance. Instead, it proposes to give the government broad authority to limit or bar access to existing leases, “regardless of any existing authorization.”

This has oil companies and Alaska lawmakers increasingly concerned, as they believe the measure could thwart oil and gas development across much of the reserve, even on existing leases.

Opponents argue that the plan would shift the role of the reserve from oil development to conservation, contrary to its congressional intent.

“The current statute says that the primary purpose is to increase domestic oil supply as expeditiously as possible, but the rule takes a completely different premise,” said Kara Moriarty, president of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

Management of Arctic oil drilling

Despite these concerns, environmentalists and some Alaska Natives have widely praised Biden for setting aside territory for conservation.

“These are resources that once they’re gone, they’re gone forever, and we can’t wait until they have disappeared to go and get them back,” said Rachael Hamby, policy director for the Center for Western Priorities. “We need to manage now to protect those resources and values for present and future generations.”

The fate of Arctic oil development hangs in the balance as the Biden administration moves forward with its sweeping plan to limit drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

While the Willow project remains unaffected, the broader implications of this initiative could have significant consequences for the industry and the delicate ecosystems of the region.


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