Balancing act over Alaskan crude oil continues

Jun 29, 2004 02:00 AM

by Duncan Adams

Biologists warn the decision could affect thousands of migrating geese, caribou and the Inupiat Eskimos who hunt them for food. The scenario is familiar. In one of the nation's wildest places, oil and wildlife inhabit the same ground.
No, not at ANWR -- the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- the focus of prolonged, impassioned debate about the compatibility of oil drilling, wilderness, wildlife and Alaska's indigenous people. This wildlife haven is Teshekpuk Lake in Alaska. The lake and environs are west of the wildlife refuge and Prudhoe Bay. This habitat in the northeast corner of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, or NPR-A, has been protected since 1977 from oil development.

But the Bush administration wants to write a new plan for the 4.6 mm-acre northeast corner. Federal land managers are considering opening 387,000 acres previously closed to drillers, an area about half the size of Rhode Island.
"The part that was put off limits -- that's where the oil is," said Jody Weil, a spokeswoman in Alaska for the US Bureau of Land Management. Weil said the BLM wants to determine whether "there is a way to develop the resources that are there while also protecting the biological and environmental resources."
"Can we get to that oil and still protect the resources?" Weil said. It's a question others in Alaska pose, too.

Few residents of the Lower 48 have heard of Teshekpuk Lake. But every spring and summer, tens of thousands of migrating birds find the lake. Geese, ducks and swans inhabit surrounding tundra wetlands for nesting, moulting and fattening beneath the midnight sun. Caribou from the Teshekpuk Lake herd calves there and seek sea-breeze relief along the nearby coast from summer's insect swarms.
The caribou frequently linger through the North Slope's harsh, dark winter. Inupiat Eskimos hunt the caribou and migrating birds. They catch fish in nearby rivers and deep-water lakes. Biologists on the North Slope and Inupiat villagers agree that the Teshekpuk caribou herd is a crucial resource.
"That name -- Teshekpuk Lake -- may not mean anything to you," said George Ahmaogak, mayor of North Slope Borough, during a forum in Anchorage earlier this year. "It means a lot to our people."

Ahmaogak readily acknowledges that the oil industry means a lot to his people, too. North Slope Borough, a municipal government incorporated in 1972 by Inupiat leaders after the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay, has used revenues gained by taxing oil industry infrastructure to build schools and roads, airfields, water and sewer systems, and much more.
Borough leaders favour onshore oil development over offshore drilling because they believe that the latter threatens the animal at the centre of the Inupiat culture -- the bowhead whale -- which coastal Eskimos hunt during the whale's migrations.

But Ahmaogak told the forum that he worries about the expansion of onshore oil development westward from Prudhoe Bay, development he said threatens to encircle the village of Nuiqsut. He said industrial activity already "is driving caribou farther away, so it's more difficult and more dangerous for Nuiqsut hunters to get to their subsistence resources."
Craig George, a wildlife biologist for North Slope Borough, said many Inupiat "have almost completely abandoned their former hunting areas in Kuparuk and Prudhoe." Ahmaogak said the borough can support industrial activity in new areas if "we are convinced that our interests will be protected." Citing President Bush's National Energy Policy, Henri Bisson, BLM's Alaska director, said the agency wants to reconsider earlier protections established for the area. Someday, oil companies might drill for crude in the lake's very heart.

The prospect of oil development in the vicinity of Teshekpuk Lake worries many biologists, who fear it will disturb the birds, caribou and fish. Geoff Carroll, an area biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, who has travelled the North Slope by boat, air, dogsled and snowmobile, expressedsimilar concerns.
"NPR-A contains very important subsistence hunting areas and some of the most biologically productive areas on the entire Alaskan coastal plain," he said. "If we were going to protect an area just on the merits of biological importance and importance to subsistence hunters, the area around Teshekpuk Lake would be the area to preserve," Carroll said.

President Warren Harding established the petroleum reserve in 1923 as a potential source of oil for the US Navy. NPR-A encompasses 23.5 mm acres. During the Clinton administration, when Bruce Babbitt was secretary of the interior, the BLM developed a plan to allow leasing, exploration and drilling for oil in portions of the 4.6 mm acres in NPR-A's northeast corner -- sections of which coincide with a geologic structure, known as the Barrow Arch, relevant to the oil strike at Prudhoe Bay in 1968.
In July 1997, Babbitt told Nuiqsut residents he recognized that their ability to withstand arctic conditions and months of darkness depended upon their "access to the caribou, the fish, the whales." When Bisson announced the BLM's new proposal for the area, he talked about the national importance of access to oil.
"There are 190 mm vehicles and 56 mm homes that depend on oil and gas each and every day," Bisson said on June 9.

The NPR-A plan that emerged on Babbitt's watch excluded from oil and gas leasing about 600,000 acres, including Teshekpuk Lake and areas north and east of the lake. Surface activity also was excluded from an additional 240,000 acres south, west and east of the lake. Carroll said the BLM is proposing "to break those promises" while "the ink is hardly dry on the 1998 plan."
BLM's new "preferred alternative" would keep 213,000 acres of sensitive goose moulting and caribou habitat northeast of Teshekpuk Lake off-limits to oil and gas leasing. For other areas, the agency touts new industry technologies -- such as angle drilling and production pads built on ice instead of gravel -- that leave fewer scars on the tundra.

But Carroll said that even though new methods reduce industry's footprint, effects still loom large.
"There is much more involved than just how much land is covered with gravel," Carroll said. "The pads must be connected by pipelines, roads, power lines, and [other infrastructure]."
Carroll said "it is possible to have oil development and healthy wildlife populations on the North Slope, but only if crucial wildlife habitat is protected."
Weil said the BLM is listening and welcomes such input. Public hearings will be held in Alaska and a hearing also is set in Washington, DC. Carroll, George and Ahmaogak will be among those offering input during hearings in Alaska. But George wonders how much weight that input will have.
"I guess we feel like the oil companies will go where the oil is, period, regardless of stipulations," he said.

Staff writer Duncan Adams was managing editor of The Arctic Sounder in Barrow, Alaska, from 1996 to 1998.

Source: The Roanoke Times
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