Delay sought in plans for NPR-A development

Telecommunications access, stress of pandemic cited as reasons to move deadlines

A group of Alaska Native and conservation entities are calling for suspension of public comment periods and permitting processes for federal proposed oil and gas development plans in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is imperative that our voices are heard in every circumstance, especially in projects that have such a wide range of impacts to our land, water and people,” said Kendra Kloster, executive director of the Native Peoples Action, one of the eight entities urging the postponement of the BLM processes.

“We do not support any entities steamrolling Alaskans and cutting off collaboration opportunities while silencing our voices,” Kloster said in a prepared statement. “We need true collaboration and respect for our tribal sovereignty which is all too often ignored or marginalized. The Bureau of Land Management needs to make sure that all processes are equitable and accessible to all during this time of crisis, and we encourage them to take this time to improve outreach in the future.”

The BLM has set a May 4 deadline for public comment on its supplement to the draft environmental impact statement for the proposed Willow Master Development Plan in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska (NPR-A). According to the BLM, ConocoPhillips has submitted an updated project proposal that includes new project components, all in response to stakeholder concerns and public comments on the master development plan draft EIS.

Lesli J. Ellis-Wouters, communications director for Interior Region 11 of the BLM in Alaska, said on Wednesday, April 29, that the BLM is working with stakeholders consistent with guidance provided by the Centers for Disease Control and state and local authorities, by using virtual meeting technology.

Virtual meetings allow communities to request meetings at their convenience without concerns for weather or logistical costs creating a more efficient way to provide information and receive feedback with minimal cost to the American taxpayer, Ellis-Wouters said. To date, over 250 people have participated in these meetings and there have been over 1,500 views on the BLM’s Facebook live posts, she said.

The BLM began holding virtual meetings via Zoom on April 16 following release of the supplemental EIS and livestreamed them on Facebook, then removed the recorded Facebook videos immediately afterward.

This method of communicating simply isn’t working according to Native Peoples Action, Native Movement, Alaska Wilderness League, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition, Northern Alaska Environmental Center and The Wilderness Society. They say that the process is silencing and excluding voices who most need to be at the table when decisions about the North Slope are made. The group cites issues with phone service and online access, along with the stress of preparing for and responding to the pandemic. Denying such requests for suspension of the process during the pandemic has further traumatized Alaska Native communities in the region they said.

Comments related to the Willow Master Development Plan supplement to the draft EIS are due by May 4. They may be submitted electronically to the eplanning.blm.gov/epl-front-office/eplanning/comments/commentSubmission.do?commentPeriodId=8001249 or mailed to Willow DEIS Comments, BLM Alaska State Office, 222 West 7th Ave. #13, Anchorage, AK 99513.