Court Won’t Allow Activists to Block Oil Recovery in National Petroleum Reserve

Published October 1, 2006

A federal appellate court on July 26 rejected a challenge from environmental activists seeking to close the National Petroleum Reserve to oil recovery. The decision will allow an 8.8 million-acre tract in Alaska to serve the purpose for which it was specifically designated by Congress.

The federal government has started the process of selling leases for the property.

Reserved Since 1923

The National Petroleum Reserve, created in 1923, was first known as the Naval Petroleum Reserve. In 1976 it was given a new name (NPR-A), and control over the territory–which totals more than 23 million acres–was given to the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management.

Litigation prevented energy extraction in the area for many years. In 1998 the Clinton administration’s Bureau of Land Management initiated a plan to allow 4.6 million acres in the northeastern section of NPR-A to be opened to oil and gas leasing. That plan is still on track, although regulatory red tape has prevented any resource recovery so far.

In 2004 Bush administration Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton signed a “record of decision” that would permit 8.8 million acres in the northwestern section of the NPR-A to be open to exploration.

Activists Challenged Decision

Several environmental activist groups challenged Norton’s decision and the process for permitting energy extraction. On January 10, 2005, federal appellate judge James Singleton upheld Norton’s decision to permit limited energy extraction. After Norton resigned as Secretary of the Interior in March 2006, Dirk Kempthorne, the newly appointed secretary, affirmed Norton’s decision.

The activist groups that brought the original challenge–including the National Audubon Society, Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Society, Alaska Wilderness League, and Sierra Club–appealed Singleton’s decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In a July 26 decision, Chief Judge Mary M. Schroeder and two other Ninth Circuit appellate judges upheld the lower court ruling. The judges ruled the Bush administration properly followed the law when opening the area to exploration.

The appellants had asserted the government failed to properly prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) before allowing more natural resource recovery.

“The Bush administration ignored the science and the local people,” said Pam Miller of the Northern Alaska Resource Center, an organization that was also a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Miller said the area contains habitat essential for certain animals, including the molting goose, which uses it as a mating area. “We have scientific support for not allowing leasing,” said Miller.

Gardens of Eden Everywhere

Heritage Foundation Senior Fellow Ben Lieberman disagreed, saying the federal government acted not only lawfully but also wisely. “I’m glad to see the energy production go forward,” Lieberman said. “We’ve heard about ANWR [the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge], but this area–as the name signifies–was specifically set aside for petroleum extraction.”

Lieberman expressed skepticism about the environmental activists’ claim that the National Petroleum Reserve was a uniquely valuable ecosystem requiring protection from resource recovery.

“Anywhere where’s there’s oil below the ground, what’s above the ground becomes the Garden of Eden–even in this desolate part of Alaska,” said Lieberman. He noted, “Alaska will still have 140 million acres–which is the size of California and New York combined–fully protected.”

Lieberman said that in a time of $3-a-gallon gasoline and increased worldwide demand for oil, the United States needs to increase domestic production. “NPR-A won’t single-handedly solve our energy needs, but it’s a step in the right direction,” Lieberman said.

Michael Coulter ([email protected]) teaches political science at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.