U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today pressed Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Director Neil Kornze on the slow pace of his agency's environmental review of a proposed access road for an oil project in Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve.
Murkowski said BLM officials appear to be "slow walking" their review of ConocoPhillips' Greater Moose's Tooth (GMT-1) until after the November election.
"I'm concerned the date for the release of the environmental impact statement for GMT-1 continues to slip," Murkowski said. "The EIS must be released in October to allow the Army Corps of Engineers to begin processing the permit to allow for road construction this winter."
The Army Corps requires a minimum of 120 days to review an application for the dredge-and-fill permit that ConocoPhillips, the project's developer, needs to build the road. If the EIS is not completed by October, company officials have said they will be forced to scrap plans to begin work on the project in January.
"If the release date slips any further, at best, this construction season will be lost and the project delayed for a year or more," Murkowski said. "This is unacceptable."
The GMT-1 project would be the first oil production from the petroleum reserve. It's projected to add 30,000 barrels of oil per day to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), which Murkowski said is critical to help reverse the pipeline's decline in throughput.
Murkowski said she is concerned that the administration is delaying review of the project because it wants to put off what could be a deeply unpopular decision in Alaska until after the November elections. Murkowski is worried that BLM will only approve the project in a manner that does not allow year-round road access to the site.
"One of our alternatives does include roadless analysis," Kornze acknowledged under direct questioning from Murkowski.
Such a restriction could erase the project's economic viability, Murkowski said.
"In Alaska, we face constant battles with this administration as to whether our federal lands will even be accessible," Murkowski said of the Obama administration. "And just as one promising project in our National Petroleum Reserve finally reaches the permitting stage, many of us are concerned that BLM's potential restrictions could render it uneconomic."
Murkowski pointed out that the project and the road are supported by both the regional and village native corporations -- ASRC and Kuukpik Corp. -- and local residents. Kornze acknowledged the high level of local support, noting that he had visited the region and heard "very clearly the same sentiment" in favor of the road that Murkowski voiced today.
Without a road, the only alternative to access GMT-1 would be by aircraft, which could have a greater impact on the behavioral patterns of the caribou that local residents depend on for subsistence.
"The president continues to tout oil and gas development from NPR-A as part of his "all of the above' energy strategy, but beyond holding lease sales, it's not clear to me what the administration is doing to help ensure a project in the petroleum reserve may be successfully developed," Murkowski said.