With national media attention laser-focused on attempts to stop drilling in the Arctic, one development project in the Western Arctic recently got the green light. In late February, the Greater Mooses Tooth project (GMT1) was approved by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This project could be the first commercial development within the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska (Reserve).
As approved by BLM, the GMT1 project will require an 11.8 acre oil drilling pad, a 7.6-mile long gravel road, an 8.4-mile elevated pipeline, two bridges, valve pads, vehicle pullouts, and culverts all through the Reserve’s sensitive wetlands and tundra – all of which will have lasting impacts on the region. In addition – and despite Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski railing against its inclusion on behalf of ConocoPhillips – BLM and Conoco came to agreement on the creation of an $8 million compensatory mitigation fund to “offset the unavoidable impacts of the project.” This means that ConocoPhillips has agreed upfront to offset the unavoidable and largely irreversible costs from the diminished environmental values of this unique ecosystem, costs that otherwise would be borne by the American public – especially local communities.
The League was very disappointed that BLM’s final decision fails to prioritize proceeding in the most environmentally sensitive way possible, and we hope that GMT1 will not set the tone for future development in the Reserve. This development will take place just a short distance away from the Teshekpuk Lake and Colville River Special Areas, lands set aside for conservation because their wildlife and subsistence values make them simply too precious to drill. Alaska Wilderness League members sent in thousands of letters urging that this project be done in the most environmentally sensitive way, and we will continue to push BLM to ensure protections are in place in all future decisions.
Far from being simply a repository of fossil fuel resources, the Reserve includes some of our nation’s most vital natural resources – millions of acres of wild, untouched lands that are home to migratory birds, brown bears, caribou, polar bears, walrus and more. The Alaska Native communities that live along the Reserve have maintained a subsistence lifestyle for thousands of years relying on the Reserve’s living resources. In particular, five “Special Areas” of exceptional wildlife value have been set aside for protection within the Reserve, so it is critical that any development there ensures the values of these Special Areas remain protected.
Example: GMT1 is in close proximity to the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, home to the largest lake in Arctic Alaska and the third largest lake in the entire state. The area encompasses the primary annual calving grounds for the Teshekpuk Lake Caribou Herd, and increased land and air traffic associated with development has the potential to disrupt the migration patterns of these animals. Teshekpuk Lake is also one of the most productive wetland complexes in the Arctic and provides vital nesting habitat for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds.
Also nearby is the Colville River Delta, the largest and most productive river delta in northern Alaska. Fish Creek, a tributary of the Colville River crucial to Alaska Natives’ traditional way of life, provides rare wildlife habitat plus important hunting and fishing opportunities, all of which would be directly impacted by GMT1. This species-rich waterway contains spawning habitat for a variety of fish including broad whitefish, Arctic cisco and Arctic grayling, and provides critical nesting sites and adjacent hunting areas for peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons, golden eagles and rough-legged hawks.
The Colville River and Teshekpuk Lake Special Areas are joined by three other Special Areas: the Utukok River Uplands, which provides calving grounds and insect relief for the Western Arctic Caribou Herd and home to the highest concentration of grizzly bears in the Arctic; Peard Bay, home to the highest density of spectacled eider nesting areas in Alaska; and Kasegaluk Lagoon, one of the largest undiminished coastal lagoon systems in the world. We believe that any future development in the Reserve must result in the smallest possible environmental footprint, minimizing cumulative impacts of future development within the Reserve, and putting in place protective measures for the surrounding communities, wildlife and the Special Areas within close proximity to the development. Big thanks to all League members that commented on this development project and stay tuned for important actions to strengthen protections for Special Areas in the Reserve.