Public hearings to commence on exploration in Alaskan tundra

Jun 27, 2004 02:00 AM

In Anchorage, federal land managers will begin a state-wide series of public meetings on a proposal to open 387,000 acres of previously forbidden North Slope tundra and lakes to oil and gas exploration.
It's a sizzling topic.
The managers say they believe that the land, in the northeast corner of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, was needlessly closed off to drillers in 1998 and that leasing it won't hurt the region's rich populations of migratory geese, caribou and other animals. Environmentalists, who already have sued the feds over leasing plans elsewhere in the enormous reserve, say that the government is pandering to industry and that the Bush administration is rolling back responsible, Clinton-era protections.

Rebecca Watson is well-acquainted with the arguments on both sides. As assistant secretary in the Interior Department, she is the agency's point person on national energy issues. When it comes to the petroleum reserve, she believes American energy consumers and wildlife protectors can both be satisfied.
"I have confidence in our system," said Watson, who has twice visited the North Slope, including the reserve.

The Indiana-size reserve, set aside by former President Harding for its oil potential in 1923, is a blessing of both energy potential and wildlife abundance, Watson said. Oil companies have yet to pump significant oil from the petroleum reserve. So far, production on the Slope has been concentrated well east around the huge Prudhoe Bay discovery of 1967.
But oil companies in recent years have been pushing west, and two oil companies, Conoco Phillips and Anadarko, might soon develop some discoveries along the reserve's eastern edge. Now the reserve's landlord, the Bureau of Land Management, has proposed making tundra and water around giant Teshekpuk Lake open to oil explorers. The Clinton administration put this 387,000-acre area off limits in 1998, but BLM officials say opening the area could yield 1.5 bn barrels of economically recoverable crude oil.

Watson, 52, a Chicago native, has spent much of her life in the West, calling herself "a Rocky Mountain person by choice."
She earned law and other degrees from the University of Denver. She was in Anchorage and, in an interview, talked about the nation's oil and gas needs, shifting political tides, and her impressions of the North Slope. Here are some excerpts.

Question: The government seems to be moving very quickly on opening the petroleum reserve to oil exploration.

Answer: People tend to pay attention to things kind of at the tail end of the process. Nothing can occur on public lands without a planning process and that doesn't take place quickly. Sometimes a year, sometimes two years. It may seem quick because all of a sudden it's in the paper, but there's been months of activity prior to that.

Question: In general, what's the administration's outlook on this huge expanse of land?

Answer: The National Petroleum Reserve is well-named. It was selected many years ago because of the tremendous resources it has, and this administration is looking at how we can produce those resources yet do it respectfully for the Native people who live on subsistence hunting as well as the tremendous bird and wildlife resources that we have there. We think we can do that.

Question: Some people have accused the Bush administration of rolling back sensible restrictions imposed under the prior administration.

Answer: Look back to what happened in 2000 when President Clinton was there. He signed the Energy Policy and Conservation Act. The EPCA study was done at the direction of Congress and President Clinton signed it. It directed the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies to look at the impediments to producing our oil and gas. What are the constraints? What are the other resource values we're trying to protect that may impede production of energy, and is there a smarter, better way to do it instead of simply saying, “No, it's off limits”?
What the BLM has learned is that there are more flexible tools that we can use instead of simply putting land off limits.
Elections do matter. There is a difference in philosophy. But it's not as the opposition describes. They want to argue that we put energy as the dominant use for BLM lands and I would reject that. We are looking at energy as a priority because it's fundamental to our economy, but we are not letting it subsume other values. Again, we don't do anything without a planning process, public participation and looking at environmental pros and cons of these projects.

Question: You've twice visited the North Slope, including a trip last year to see the Puviaq exploratory drill site deep inside the petroleum reserve. What image did you take away from that place?

Answer: I flew there in the winter. It was very beautiful. We flew over a small village. I could see a caribou herd and people out and about in this landscape.
I think it's the most incredible place in the United States. It's a part of America that not many people think of. And you see the folks living up there in this very harsh environment. It's fascinating. It's a landscape unlike anything else I've seen in the country. It's just different. It's like going to another planet, in a way.

Question: Do you trust the oil companies to not screw up that beautiful landscape?

Answer: Well, you know what? We don't operate that way in this country. We don't operate on trust. We have laws, we have enforcement, and we have a lot of people looking over their shoulders, and they have a lot of shareholders looking over their shoulders.
The environmental movement has made a difference in what's acceptable now versus what was acceptable 30 years ago. So there's a lot of security fences, so to speak, put up around what oil and gas companies do. And I have confidence in our system.

Source: Anchorage Daily News
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