US Proposes More Alaskan Land for Oil, Gas Drilling

The federal governments wants 387,000 more acres available for oil and gas drilling in Alaska, a proposal criticized by environmentalists.

The move announced Wednesday is part of a proposed Bureau of Land Management amendment to a 1998 development plan for the northeastern region of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Environmentalists said the plan would endanger lands rich in sensitive wetlands and wildlife habitats.

But Henri Bisson, state director for the federal Bureau of Land Management, said the expansion is necessary and would increase potential reserves from 600 million barrels to 2.1 billion barrels.

"We believe we've picked the right course," he said.

Originally, 87% of the 4.6 million acres in the region along the state's North Slope was to be made available for oil and gas development leases. The new plan would open about 96%.

Eleanor Huffines, regional director of The Wilderness Society, said the announcement amounts to broken promises to preserve sensitive wildlife habitats around Teshekpuk Lake in northern Alaska.

"It's an incredible rollback that the agency is not acknowledging to the public," Huffines said. "This is not the direction we should be headed in."

The Alaskan reserve covers about 23.5 million acres of public land west of Prudhoe Bay and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Estimates of total oil reserves in the region range from about 6 billion to 13 billion barrels of oil.

Seven environmental groups, including The Wilderness Society, previously sued in federal court to prevent development in the area.

The lawsuit alleges oil and gas drilling in the region violates environmental protection laws and ignores sensitive habitats for birds, wildlife and whales. A judge denied a request for a temporary injunction and is still considering the lawsuit.

Public meetings on the new proposal will be held across Alaska and in Washington, D.C., over the next month. Final approval rests with the Interior Department.

The additional acreage is within the Barrow Arch, a potentially oil-rich geologic vein running through the reserve that includes caribou and waterfowl habitats.