Introduction and summary
Alaska holds some of the country’s most expansive, wild, and critically important lands—and the nation’s only Arctic region. Despite the significance of these lands, many of them lack adequate protection from threats such as oil and gas development and are instead sources of carbon pollution. These vulnerable landscapes experience some of the most evident impacts of the climate crisis, including unprecedented temperature rise, sea ice loss, and thawing permafrost.1 One of these landscapes—the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), also known as the Western Arctic or, simply, the Reserve—contains nearly 23 million acres, making it 10 times the size of Yellowstone National Park and the single-largest plot of contiguous public lands in the United States. It is also where the Willow Project is being developed.2
The Biden administration approved the controversial 30-year Willow Project in March 2023,3 drawing scathing opposition from many local community members, climate groups, and young voters.4 In the weeks leading up to the project’s approval, the White House received more than 1 million letters of disapproval and saw a petition with more than 5 million signatures; the hashtag #StopWillow went viral across the internet, with almost 150 million views on TikTok alone.5 One of the greatest dangers of the Willow Project is that it provides a first-ever base for expanded oil and gas operations in the Reserve.6
The Biden administration remains one of the most ambitious conservation administrations the United States has ever seen but now must navigate the complex and risky future of the Western Arctic.7
Like the neighboring Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Western Arctic is an expansive landscape largely untouched by industrialization, home not only to bountiful wildlife but also subsistence sources for countless Alaska Native communities who have been there for more than 8,000 years.8 Managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Reserve is actively threatened by risky oil and gas projects such as the Willow Project.9 To combat these threats, there is an urgent need for strong and durable regulations to conserve America’s Arctic. Biden set a historic goal to protect 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030 and reduce carbon emissions by at least 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. The Biden administration now has the opportunity to ensure that these goals extend to the Reserve and protect its communities, wildlife, and climate—rather than guaranteeing an industrial base for oil and gas that has no place in the country’s future.
The day before approving the Willow Project, the administration announced its intent to strengthen protections for 13 million acres within the Western Arctic, a little more than half of the Reserve.10 On September 6, 2023, the administration published the proposed rulemaking, with greater protections for Special Areas in the Reserve and increased support for subsistence activities for Alaska Native communities.11 The proposed regulations offer increased protection from new oil and gas leasing for some of the most special parts of the Reserve. But there is an opportunity to go further. The administration must prioritize strong protections for vulnerable Arctic landscapes that keep the country on track to meet climate and conservation goals—and regain public trust and approval in the process.
This report provides a detailed overview of this little-known, remote landscape—including its benefits for climate, wildlife, and Alaska Native communities; the looming threat it’s under from oil and gas; and policy recommendations that the Biden administration should undertake to protect this vital place for future generations. In particular, the administration should strengthen the management of the Reserve through environmental limits and mitigation on new and existing leases, Indigenous consultation, and assessing the climate impacts of the Reserve’s management.
The Reserve: Background and significance
As the modern clean energy economy advances and the United States moves away from its dependence on oil and gas resources, the Biden administration has an opportunity to align the management of the Western Arctic with the needs of the nation’s future. Drilling in America’s Arctic will not be up and running to produce oil resources for the nation in the short term, and the threat of worsening climate change amid record heat waves and droughts should not be exchanged for industry profit.12 America’s Arctic is home to incomparable and largely undeveloped natural areas that hold significance for many Alaska Native communities. As industry continues to threaten expansion, it is becoming more and more important to safeguard America’s last wild places.
The Reserve across energy transitions
Despite being formally named the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, the Western Arctic is not an inventory for future oil and gas exploitation. Valuing the Western Arctic solely for its oil would be like valuing the Grand Canyon for its uranium deposits. When the Reserve was originally designated in 1923, the nation was on the brink of an energy transition13—specifically, from powering its naval ships with coal to fueling them with oil. 2023 marks 100 years since President Warren G. Harding designated the site as the “Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 4,” naming petroleum sourcing as a primary, but not the sole, purpose of the designation. In 1976, management of the Reserve shifted to the Department of the Interior to take greater account of conservation values. With this shift came recognition of the Reserve for more than its oil and gas potential, as well as an opening of the door for protecting specific areas and resources.
It is once again time to reprioritize management of the Western Arctic to focus on its benefits for wildlife, cultural preservation, and climate mitigation.
Now, a century later, the world is in the midst of another energy revolution. Burning fossil fuels contributes to more than three-quarters of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and scientists say that a rapid transition to clean energy is necessary to avert catastrophic climate and public health impacts.14 It is once again time to reprioritize management of the Western Arctic to focus on its benefits for wildlife, cultural preservation, and climate mitigation.
A simple history of the Reserve
February 23, 1923
- President Warren G. Harding first designates the Reserve as a petroleum reserve for the Navy.15
April 5, 1976
- The Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act (NPRPA) authorizes oil and gas leasing in the Reserve, naming it the “National Petroleum Reserve” to reflect the energy needs of the nation at the time.16
- Jurisdiction of the Reserve is transferred from the secretary of the Navy to the Department of the Interior, and the department is required to protect the significant wildlife, historical, and scenic values of the area.17
June 1, 1977
- President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of the interior names three Special Areas—a formal designation of defined parcels within the Reserve meant to protect values such as species migration corridors and important habitat—at Teshekpuk Lake, Colville River, and Utukok River Uplands to protect these habitats from oil and gas development.18
July 17, 1984
- A 1984 amendment directs the president to appoint agencies and Alaskan representatives to consider the environmental consequences of oil and gas exploration.19 It also calls for a study of the values of the land for local Native communities and all historical, recreational, scenic, or wilderness values.
April 6, 1999
- President Bill Clinton’s secretary of the interior expands the Teshekpuk Lake and Colville River Special Areas.20
January 22, 2004
- A fourth Special Area is named at Kasegaluk Lagoon.21
February 21, 2013
- The Obama administration finalizes an integrated activity plan (IAP) governing management of the Reserve that closes 3.5 million acres to leasing—including Teshekpuk Lake—while leaving half of the Reserve open to oil and gas leasing. It also creates a fifth Special Area at Peard Bay.22
December 31, 2020
- The Trump administration revises the IAP to open more than 80 percent of the Reserve’s land, including the Teshekpuk Lake area, to oil and gas activities.23
January 10, 2022
- The Biden administration restores the protections instituted through the Obama administration’s 2013 NPR-A Integrated Activity Plan.24
March 13, 2023
- The Bureau of Land Management approves ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project, a decision that threatens to lock in more than 30 years of oil and gas development in the Reserve.25
September 6, 2023
- The Biden administration announces the proposed rulemaking for increasing conservation within the Reserve, including greater protection of 13 million acres of Special Areas and subsistence resources.26
The Biden administration’s recent approval of ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project led many local community and climate groups to call into question the president’s seriousness in tackling fossil fuel dependence and reinforced the power that the oil industry holds over U.S. public lands.27 Willow was first approved by former President Donald Trump, then overturned by a U.S. district court in August 2021.28 The project faced criticism for its limited environmental review and has since been entangled in lawsuits brought by Earthjustice and Trustees for Alaska on behalf of Indigenous and conservation organizations.29
Ongoing concerns about the legality, ethics, economic viability, and feasibility of drilling in this landscape have called into question the need for massive drilling projects such as Willow. Under current regulations, however, additional projects like Willow remain a possible, and even likely, fate for the landscape. ConocoPhillips executives have referred to Willow as “the next great Alaska hub” for oil and gas exploitation.30 There has been significant growth and change in the management of the Western Arctic since its initial designation 100 years ago, and the Biden administration has a unique opportunity to ensure that the Reserve’s management continues to progress with the nation’s clean energy transition.
How protecting the Reserve can help mitigate climate change
Alaskan forests, such as the Tongass, are known for their powerful carbon sequestration abilities, but the treeless tundra of the Western Reserve holds its climate power underground in the form of oil and gas deposits. While the Arctic makes up only 6 percent of the planet’s surface area, it contains significant portions of the world’s fossil fuels, including an estimated 13 percent of undiscovered global oil and 30 percent of undiscovered global gas.31 Nationally, the state of Alaska holds 62 percent of all carbon stored on U.S. lands.32 The estimated 8.7 billion barrels of oil and 25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Reserve would be roughly equivalent to a one-year supply for the United States at current consumption levels. This amount of fossil fuels would release more than 5 gigatons of carbon dioxide if extracted and burned.33
Not only is it extremely costly and difficult to drill in the Arctic, but it is also, according to a 2021 study, imperative to leave at least 60 percent of petroleum untouched in order to have at least a 50 percent chance of keeping global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius.34 Research and understanding of climate change has grown substantially since the designation of the Reserve. Protecting the Reserve from oil and gas development is an important step toward making sure the United States prevents more fossil fuels from further contributing to harmful pollution and climate change.
America’s Arctic: One of the country’s last wild places
The Western Arctic—a vast tundra with significant wetlands—is home to many threatened and endangered species, migration corridors, and essential breeding grounds, as well as some of the largest undeveloped stretches of natural area left in America. Caribou are among the most notable species within the Reserve, with combined herd totals of more than 300,000.35 Three caribou herds—the Western Arctic, Teshekpuk, and Central Arctic—rely on the area as a nesting ground. However, the Western Arctic herd is experiencing significant population decline due to climate change. In 2022, the herd size was just one-third of what it was in the early 2000s.36
Within the Reserve are five designated Special Areas: Teshekpuk Lake, Colville River, Utukok River Uplands, Kasegaluk Lagoon, and Peard Bay. These are defined parcels meant to protect areas with important values—such as species migration corridors, critical habitat, or subsistence resources—from oil and gas exploitation. For example, the Utukok River Uplands Special Area was designated with the intention of protecting essential habitat for the Western Arctic caribou herd. As it stands, the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act requires Special Areas to receive “maximum protection,” but there is uncertainty surrounding what that means, as these areas have been under threat from oil and gas development.
The Reserve is also regarded for its migratory bird habitat, with Teshekpuk Lake recognized as an Important Bird Area and known for housing many Alaska WatchList species, including the spectacled eider and loon.37 Around Colville River, there are more than 60 species of bird breeds, including many raptors, shorebirds, and waterfowl.38 The coast offers plentiful shorebird habitat along with marine ecosystems for beluga whales, seals, walruses, and other species. Polar bears, which are considered threatened under the Endangered Species Act, den on the coastal plain of the Reserve. It is also home to grizzly bears, wolves, arctic foxes, musk oxen, and more.39
At a time when 41 percent of U.S. ecosystems are at risk of rangewide collapse, the administration should prioritize conservation of a landscape as vast and wild as the Western Arctic.40 Oil and gas exploration and development is known to disrupt the physical environment and disturb the hunting and sleeping patterns of wildlife, not only through drilling infrastructure but also through the noise, light, and pollution associated with development.41 The remote Arctic cannot bear the impacts of oil and gas drilling while also supporting its existing wildlife—especially while it is suffering the dramatic impacts of climate change.42 Species are losing habitat at unprecedented rates, and with this, Alaska Native communities are losing their subsistence resources.43
Alaska Native communities and the Reserve
The Reserve is the traditional land of the Iñupiaq people and sits adjacent to 13 communities, including the village of Nuiqsut, which is near the Reserve’s northeastern boundary and closest to North Slope oil development, including the Willow Project.44 More than 40 Alaska Native communities in the greater landscape have more than 8,000-year-old cultural ties to the Arctic and have long relied on it as a source of life, especially leading up to long, cold winters.45 Hunting caribou is a cultural tradition, with the animal used for food, clothing, and bows. The Reserve also contains more than 1,000 historic cultural sites, such as rock carvings, burials, trading posts, and shipwrecks.46
Oil and gas exploration and development are already affecting these nearby communities. Nuiqsut is squarely surrounded by the oil industry and has been threatened and temporarily displaced by gas leaks, including the March 2022 leak at a ConocoPhillips’ drilling site 8 miles outside the village, which forced about 300 site employees and some 20 Nuiqsut families to flee to escape immediate health impacts.47 The city of Nuiqsut, the Native Village of Nuiqsut Tribal Council, and other local communities and organizations within them have expressed significant concern about the health implications of living so close to drilling infrastructure over the years as industrial activity has continued to spread west.48
Uncontrolled oil development in the Western Arctic and the melting ice, lack of snow, and human health threats that come with it will end up displacing Alaska Native communities with ancestral ties to the land. Alaska Native communities should not have to bear the burden of the federal decision to drill in their backyard. Permanent regulations for the Reserve, made with involvement of and consultation with local Tribes and communities, must consider subsistence values and environmental justice commitments.
Current threats to the Western Arctic
In 1976, the Reserve was opened to oil and gas leasing, with the first lease sale held in 1982. A number of additional lease sales have been held intermittently since then.49 While protections from new leasing are critical, much of the Reserve areas with known oil deposits are already under lease by oil and gas companies. These leases are the biggest threat to the area, its people, and its wildlife; in fact, there are some 2.5 million acres of active leases across the landscape, meaning that oil companies are working to find a way to drill these leased parcels.50 ConocoPhillips is the largest leaseholder in the Reserve—with leases on 1.1 million acres—along with other major leaseholders 88 Energy and North Slope Energy.51
Leases are even held within the boundaries of Special Areas in the Reserve, and some of these areas are already expected to be affected by development. More than 800,000 acres are leased within Special Areas across the Reserve, including the Willow Project, which would partially sit in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area and run through the Colville River Special Area.52 Developing in and around Teshekpuk Lake will negatively affect the caribou, polar bear, and bird populations that rely on the area’s wetlands.
The most well-known active threat to the Reserve is the Willow Project, which threatens to lock in 30 years of drilling. But the bigger threat is that of expansion. ConocoPhillips executives already have plans to turn Willow into the “next great Alaska hub” that would access an unchecked 3 billion barrels of oil.53 This “hub” is not far off: ConocoPhillips has already indicated its intent to expand Willow development and has tried to move forward with expanded seismic exploration plans.54 It’s questionable for the BLM to consider seismic exploration for an expanded Willow while actively undergoing a conservation rulemaking.
Willow is not the only immediate threat that the Western Arctic is facing. Infrastructure from Willow will enable additional development and exploration on lands previously too costly or otherwise inaccessible to the oil industry. 88 Energy’s Project Peregrine could more than double Willow’s carbon footprint and would extend oil production past 2050.55 Additionally, North Slope Energy’s West Castle prospect, a 92,000-acre lease in the Reserve that runs adjacent to the Willow Project along the southern portion of Teshekpuk Lake, is actively moving forward with exploration.56 Building drilling infrastructure in America’s Arctic only paves the way for more oil and gas projects to be realized—all of which would extend production past 2050, the year the United States has committed to reaching net-zero emissions. If nothing is done to address currently held leases in the Reserve, the country, and the Biden administration, will only have more massive oil projects such as Willow on its hands.
In order to protect the valuable ecosystem resources and climate mitigation and adaptation potential of the Western Arctic, the Biden administration should move quickly to pursue a suite of analyses and regulations to modernize management of the Reserve. The recent draft regulations, discussed below, will better protect Special Areas from the impacts of development, but there is an opportunity to go further in addressing the full scope of challenges that the Reserve faces. There remains a need to account for the climate threat posed by existing leases. In order to work toward a just transition and effective climate action that sets up Alaska and the country for a healthy future, the Biden administration should consider the following recommendations as first steps toward stronger protections for the Western Arctic.
Strengthen the draft rule
The Reserve is one of two federally managed conservation areas across America’s Arctic in which the administration is addressing the threat of oil and gas development over the next year. On September 6, the Biden administration made multiple announcements related to the Reserve and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The administration canceled the remaining leases in the Arctic Refuge, replaced the Trump administration’s illegal environmental review with a new draft supplemental environmental impact statement for the Refuge, and released draft regulations to better protect the Western Arctic.57 Together, these proposals and decisions could protect millions of acres—efforts that will be key to meeting America the Beautiful goals.
The administration’s draft regulations for the Reserve would protect 13 million acres across the Western Arctic by limiting new leasing and further protecting Special Areas including Teshekpuk Lake, Utukok River Uplands, Colville River, Kasegaluk Lagoon, and Peard Bay. The rule would prohibit new leasing and infrastructure in 10.6 million acres of the Reserve and would elevate protections for areas of significance to polar bears, caribou, and other vital species. While the rule does not change the terms of existing leases in those areas, it does further enshrine and strengthen many of the protective provisions for important areas and resources to ensure they are given “maximum protection” as required under the law.
Oil and gas development are already affecting the ecosystem and subsistence values within the Reserve. To strengthen the rule, the BLM should provide greater clarity on the definition of “significantly adverse effects” to surface resources so that it includes effects on any environmental, fish and wildlife, historical, and scenic values, whether they are individually or collectively significant. In this way, the agency can best maintain authority over mitigating impacts to these values. The BLM should consider including a process that reevaluates mitigation needs to ensure that significant adverse effects are prevented and that the agency maintains the strongest possible protections.
Further, the proposed regulations should clarify the BLM’s authority to moderate the rates of production or to limit or suspend leasing activity to protect environmental and subsistence values. These proposed conservation regulations have the ability to increase protections to Special Areas, better account for the impacts of climate change, incorporate Indigenous knowledge and co-stewardship, and clarify the BLM’s mitigation authorities in this Arctic landscape.
Bolster Special Area protections, designations, and amendments
Under the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act, the secretary may designate, expand, and define management of Special Areas to provide maximum protection in particular parcels with ecological, recreational, subsistence, historical, or scenic values. However, “maximum protection” had long been undefined, leaving Special Areas vulnerable to development. The recent proposed regulations specify that maximum protection measures (MPMs) will apply to each protected value within a Special Area. The existing regulation provides examples of maximum protection measures, such as requirements for when and where activities take place, restrictions on types of vehicles, limits on types and use of aircraft, and provisions on fuel handling. There is room for the BLM to strengthen the process for MPMs, including to maintain and expand on the examples of MPMs, clarify how the BLM will evaluate these measures in the context of oil and gas decision-making, and assert that the agency may not remove these protective measures.
The BLM’s new rule also makes clear the authority to limit, restrict, or prohibit use or access to lands within the Reserve, including Special Areas, in order to protect lands for wildlife, scenic, or historic values. In addition, the rule takes the necessary step of prohibiting new leasing in Special Areas. The proposed regulations recognize that both “mitigating the significantly adverse effects” to the Reserve’s resources and the “maximum protection” of Special Areas may include measures to delay or deny proposed activities. Mitigation measures should be adopted to avoid significant impacts on fish, wildlife, and water, as well as cultural, paleontological, scenic, and all other surface values. The BLM must also work to ensure current leases, such as those occupied by the Willow Project, are not able to affect the surface values of Special Areas through expanded infrastructure or development.
The proposed regulations would require the BLM to seek public feedback on Special Areas every five years, beginning once the final regulations are announced, including whether they should expand and create new Special Area designations. The BLM should begin that process as soon as possible after finalizing the regulations. As part of that process, the BLM should prioritize new Special Area designations in areas where outstanding cultural and biological resources remain unprotected and in parts of the Reserve where risk of development is urgent. In addition to new and expanded designations, the BLM should ensure that this process provides an opportunity to strengthen MPMs and define new significant resource values within Special Areas. Special Area evaluations should be done with comprehensive community input and in a way that reflects the latest Indigenous knowledge, climate science, species migration patterns, and community needs. For example, in consideration of the declining caribou populations among Arctic herds, the BLM should consider Special Areas with the purpose of protecting lands that are critical to area herds’ migration, breeding, and nesting.
The draft regulations demonstrate a first step toward management to better protect important wildlife, habitat, and cultural resources in the Reserve. The BLM must take this opportunity to strengthen the rule to keep the Reserve in line with national climate, conservation, and environmental justice initiatives. Specifically, regulations should make clear that there is no presumption or prioritization of fossil fuel extraction or new lease sales in the Reserve. Special Areas such as Teshekpuk Lake that hold remarkable ecosystem value have already been put at risk by prospective oil and gas projects. Such areas should be considered for expansion and prioritized for maximum protection, including restrictions and prohibitions on drilling.
Conduct a climate impact analysis for the region
To better understand how climate damage—such as rapid sea ice loss—is harming America’s Arctic, in large part due to oil and gas-derived greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the secretary of the interior should direct the BLM to conduct a climate change impact analysis for the Reserve. Recent analyses of GHG emissions for the Western Arctic have only considered gross emissions from a hypothetical development scenario and compared them with state, domestic, and federal emissions. This information does not fit the current interim guidance from the Council on Environmental Quality recommending that GHG emission estimates be measured in relevant context to national climate commitments.58 The BLM should develop a comprehensive plan for addressing oil and gas production in the Reserve, especially in the context of national climate goals. Large-scale oil and gas development in the region does not align with the administration’s obligation to safeguard the environmental, cultural, and surface values of the Reserve.
A successful climate impact analysis should go beyond just a quantification of greenhouse gas emissions and consider emissions in the context of their climate impacts on the Reserve’s resources, subsistence, and communities, as well as how to mitigate these harms in a way that aligns with applicable land management policies and national climate commitments. As the consideration of climate impacts grows even more critical, the secretary may consider postponing new drilling permits and other expansion-related decisions until the analysis is completed. This would go hand in hand with the proposed conservation rulemaking and further demonstrate the Biden administration’s commitment to comprehensive environmental review. The BLM should also work with leaseholders to urge companies to reconsider existing leases, including plans to terminate agreements early. This would be especially meaningful for terminating nonproducing leases.
Engage in consultation and pursue co-stewardship with Indigenous communities
The Biden administration must prioritize increasing Indigenous co-stewardship of subsistence resources. For thousands of years, Indigenous communities in the Reserve have managed their resources for both community well-being and environmental health. It is imperative that these communities gain decision-making power in the forthcoming management of the Western Arctic. The proposed rule encourages the BLM to explore co-stewardship opportunities with Tribes in the Reserve’s Special Areas. Special Areas can safeguard places of high subsistence value, which is important for local communities who rely on Western Arctic species for food and their way of life. In a 2022 letter, the Nuiqsut Village Kuukpik Corporation voiced support for permanent protections for part of the Reserve around Teshekpuk Lake Special Area due to its major role in the migration and mating of the Teshekpuk caribou herd.59
In the recent Willow Project approval, several individuals from the community of Nuiqsut, which is just a few miles from the Willow site, published a letter to the administration admonishing the inadequate consultation process.60 In this letter, they explained that the BLM has repeatedly skipped the consideration of traditional ecological knowledge and has failed to incorporate the community’s concerns into the environmental assessment process. Due to the Reserve’s proximity to and subsistence value for Alaska Native communities, the BLM should engage in early, meaningful communication and consultation with local villages and Tribes to ensure that new regulations meet the needs and address the concerns of the communities who have historically relied on it. The Biden administration must look closely at options for Indigenous co-stewardship and opportunities for meaningful input from Indigenous communities regarding management decisions, especially in relation to subsistence resources.
The United States is rapidly transitioning to clean energy, with progressive climate goals to match, and the management of this 100-year-old site should transition along with the rest of the nation. Drilling in the Western Arctic is a guaranteed loss for the environment and the climate and is not worth the cost it will require. The Western Arctic is a vital and robust ecosystem that provides subsistence to many local Alaska Native communities but lacks ample protections to safeguard it from oil and gas exploitation. The secretary of the interior maintains the authority to protect the area for its environmental, ecological, historical, and scenic values and has discretion over the future of the oil and gas program. The Biden administration has a once-in-a-presidency opportunity to safeguard America’s Arctic for years to come.
The Biden administration has set ambitious climate and conservation goals, including protecting 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030 and reducing carbon emissions by at least 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.61 Protecting the Western Arctic has the potential to contribute considerably to the president’s legacy in meeting those goals, if done right. The president has the chance to establish a legacy as a one-of-a-kind climate leader, but he must take every opportunity to prioritize people and conservation over the oil and gas industry in America’s Arctic.
The authors would like to thank Nicole Gentile, Trevor Higgins, Meghan Miller, Shanée Simhoni, Bill Rapp, Mat Brady, Michael Freeman, Sharon Ferguson, Audrey Juarez, the Alaska Wilderness League, Trustees for Alaska, and the local and national conservation leaders who are building impactful and equitable conservation solutions every day.