White House proposes Alaskan tract for oil and gas development

Jan 18, 2003 01:00 AM

The Bush administration announced new proposals to open as many as 9 mm acres of Alaska's North Slope to oil and gas development, including some areas considered environmentally sensitive. The Interior Department released a draft proposal to offer oil and gas leases in the north-western section of the government's National Petroleum Reserve, a vast stretch of Arctic tundra, lakes and ponds set aside in the 1920s for potential energy development.
The new document gives no preference to any of four options, but the government is expected to select a compromise that will offer large areas for drilling, while cordoning off some sensitive lands for environmental reasons. A decision will be made, possibly as early as this fall, on the extent of the oil and gas exploration and what areas will be protected.

The land lies west of the long-established Prudhoe Bay oil fields on Alaska's North Slope. To the east of Prudhoe Bay is the oil-rich 1.5-mm-acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which has been the focus of heated debate in Congress over whether to drill there.
While development of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, an area the size of Indiana, has generated nowhere near such controversy, environmentalists said they feared the Bush leasing plan will include drilling in some sensitive areas important for the protection of migratory birds, whales and wildlife.

Geologists believe the 22.5 mm acres of the NPRA may contain 6 bn to 13 bn barrels of oil, compared to 3.2 bn to 11.5 bn believed beneath the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge 100 miles to the east. But the oil in the reserve is more widely scattered and more costly to develop than it would be in the off-limits, more concentrated wildlife refuge.
While environmentalists are adamant in blocking oil-recovery operations in the Arctic refuge to the east, they concede some oil and gas development in the petroleum reserve is to be expected. The Clinton administration opened much of the eastern section of the reserve to oil and gas exploration in 1998, under tight restrictions with some areas fenced off. Some leases already have been sold there.
“What is needed is a balanced approach to the management of these resources across the entire North Slope to protect the most sensitive areas and cultures,” said Eleanor Huffines of the Wilderness Society.

One of four options proposed would provide oil and gas companies access to about half the 9 mm acres, impose significant restrictions on exploration and drilling and put most of the area's coastal bays, lagoons, lakes and estuaries off-limits.
Under this proposal, only 2 % of areas with high potential for oil and gas would be made available, a level of environmental protection that is unlikely to attract significant industry interest in the leases. Another option would make available 96 % of the land and all the areas with “high oil and gas potential,” according to a summary of the document.
This proposal would fence off from leasing the Kasegaluk Lagoon, a particularly environmentally sensitive area in the far western part of the reserve. It is known as home of beluga whales, spotted seals and the black brant, a migratory wild goose.

Source: AP
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