Bush administration still needs to make case for Arctic refuge drilling

Feb 13, 2001 01:00 AM

The Bush administration will weigh opening some currently off-limits areas of the Rockies to oil and gas drilling as part of a sweeping review of untapped energy resources, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said. However, the former Colorado attorney general acknowledged the administration still needs to make the case for opening Alaska's Arctic Wildlife Refuge to drilling.
"In order to satisfy Congress... President Bush and I are going to have to establish that energy development can take place in a very environmentally responsible manner," Norton said. A 1999 study by the National Petroleum Council, an industry advisory group to the government, said about 10 % of the country's total reserves of natural gas lay beneath the Rockies but that 40 % of the deposits are off-limits to drilling.
In 1997, the US Forest Service banned drilling in areas of the Lewis and Clark National Forest that is part of the Overthrust Belt -- a geological formation in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and northern Utah rich in oil and gas deposits. "We want to ensure that energy production is taking place in those areas where the environment can most tolerate that," Norton said.
"One of the areas that would be studied as part of an across-the-board look at energy resources would be the Overthrust Belt." However, she said she and Bush support current moratoriums on new offshore drilling in California and Florida. "That certainly would continue," she said.

The last time the Interior Department did a formal Environmental Impact Statement on drilling for oil in the Alaska refuge was 1987. Norton said current technologies would have minimal effect on the environment, but she acknowledged new studies may be needed. "We'll have to look at what environmental studies are going to need to be done. At this point, I don't know exactly which documents will have to be prepared," she said.
A poll conducted for the AP found that 48 % opposed exploring for oil in the pristine Alaska refuge, while 43 % approve. Norton said it was "still under discussion exactly what format the proposal would take" on Arctic drilling.
Options under discussion include lifting the ban as part of an energy package Bush plans to submit to Congress or trying to attach the measure to a bill that could not be filibustered in the Senate. Norton linked opening the Arctic refuge directly to soaring natural gas prices around the country and the electricity shortage in California that is being aggravated by the high gas prices.
"In order to ensure that jobs are available, that our dynamic economy continues, that elderly people in California are not having to worry about how to keep their homes warm, we're going to have to examine how to look at Arctic production in an environmentally friendly way," she said.
Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope called that rationale "complete garbage." California relies on oil for about 1 % of its electricity and that oil from the Arctic likely would take a decade to get to production and be exported to Japan, he said. "What they're doing is taking today's headlines and wrapping them around a payoff to the oil industry," Pope said.

Norton also said:
--She plans to travel within to see the Alaska refuge and the Everglades in Florida, where the Army Corps of Engineers is beginning a $ 7.8 bn, 25-year project to restore its natural flow.
--The administration is looking at recommending changes to the Endangered Species Act that would add economic incentives for landowners. "The Endangered Species Act has tended to create confrontation... all of the wrong incentives. Instead of crippling people who find endangered species, we ought to have a way of helping them, rewarding them and working with them. It may or may not take changes in the law to be able to do that. We'll certainly be looking at what can be done administratively."
-- An energy task force headed by Vice President Dick Cheney has made no decision yet on California's request to expedite permits required by agencies in her department so that new power plants there can be operating by the summer air conditioning season.
-- Bush and herself support full federal funding at $ 900 mm a year of a federal-state land buying conservation program. She stopped short of endorsing broader legislation that would commit the government to spending $ 3 bn a year for 15 years on land conservation efforts. Western Republican senators stopped the bill last year. Norton said she hopes her legacy will be lending a voice to those affected by federal land decisions.
"The Department of the Interior is often viewed as remote and distant, making decisions that deeply affect people's lives without really understanding the consequences," she said. "I would like to be remembered as a secretary who really brought people together and changed our decision-making focus to one that requires Washington to listen to people throughout the country."

Source: AP
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