Bush administration to open Alaskan area for oil drilling

Nov 21, 2003 01:00 AM

The Bush administration intends to open 8.8 mm acres of Alaska's North Slope to oil and gas development, including areas considered environmentally sensitive. The Interior Department was to announce the oil and gas leasing plan on the day the Senate was taking a critical vote on a massive energy bill endorsed by President Bush but denying him his top energy priority, opening an Alaskan wildlife refuge to drilling.
None of the 8.8 mm acres are in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), but they do include some sensitive areas in Alaska that are important for the protection of migratory birds, whales and wildlife. Geologists believe the 22.5 mm acres in the government's National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska may contain 6 bn to 13 bn barrels of oil. But it is widely scattered and costlier to develop than in the wildlife refuge.

Henri Bisson, the Alaska director for the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM), said the leasing plan would "maximize the production of oil and gas resources in an environmentally safe manner while protecting the important biological, subsistence and cultural values also found in this area." Bisson said he expects BLM to hold a lease sale for selected tracts in June.
The Clinton administration had opened much of the eastern section of the reserve to oil and gas exploration in 1998, but under tight restrictions. Environmentalists said the plan would jeopardize Arctic tundra, lakes and ponds that provide sanctuary for wildlife and migratory birds but were set aside in the 1920s for potential energy development.

Charles Clusen, director of the Alaska lands project for the Natural Resources Defence Council, an environmental group, said the leasing plan rewards friends of the Bush administration in the oil and gas industry.
"Instead of being a wilderness area, it will be an industrial zone subdivided by roads, pipelines, associated facilities, drill pads, maintenance facilities, etc., etc."
The Interior Department described its action as a compromise that will offer large areas for drilling, while cordoning off some sensitive lands because of environmental concerns.

The land is west of Prudhoe Bay, long-used oil fields on Alaska's North Slope, and also west of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's 1.5 mm-acre coastal plain that Bush and Republicans in Congress fought unsuccessfully to open. Under the leasing plan, BLM would:
-- Defer leasing on about 1.5 mm acres of the petroleum reserve for the next 10 years to see if it needs more environmental studies.
-- Protect from development another 1.5 mm acres along the coast and in deep-water lakes.
-- Recommend creating a 102,000-acre Kasegaluk Lagoon Special Area, a sensitive area in the western part of the reserve, that would be fenced off from leasing.
-- Designate special study areas for the black brandt and caribou.
-- Conduct habitat studies for eiders, a bird whose existence is imperilled, and yellow-billed loons.

Source: The Associated Press
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