Interior Approves Expanded Drilling in Alaskan Reserve

The Interior Department gave final approval yesterday to expanded oil and gas drilling in the northeast section of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, drawing criticism from environmentalists who said the plan would harm crucial wildlife habitats.

The decision opens roughly 400,000 acres in the reserve's northeast section that were off limits under the Clinton-era leasing plan. It includes areas around Teshekpuk Lake considered critical for geese, caribou and other species. "This decision takes the most sensitive area and opens that as well," said Eleanor Huffines, Alaska Regional Director of The Wilderness Society.

The total acreage now available in the northeast section is nearly 4.4 million acres. The area is estimated to contain about 2.1 billion barrels of oil and 3.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, Bureau of Land Management officials said. Spokeswoman Jody Weil said the Clinton plan did not allow leasing in much if the "high potential area" of the northeast section. Areas around Teshekpuk Lake were also restricted under the Reagan administration.

BLM officials say the "record of decision" announced yesterday contains a suite of important resource protections.

Restrictions in the plan include limiting surface disturbance to 300 acres on each of the seven lease tracts -- which range from 46,000 to 59,000 acres -- north of the lake. "You are talking about a very small percentage of those large leases being subject to any form of disturbance whatsoever," said BLM planner Peter Ditton in an interview this morning.

The restriction does not apply to pipelines, but the plan says that before allowing pipeline construction, BLM will work with state officials and local communities to determine the best way to minimize effects on caribou and subsistence resources and users.

The plan creates a 242,000 acre "goose molting area" to protect habitat, including lakes, that would allow no permanent facilities except pipelines. Planners envision that hydrocarbons under these restricted areas -- known as "no surface occupancy" (NSO) areas -- would be tapped through "directional drilling" from other locations.

The plan also includes NSO restrictions on certain areas considered important for caribou habitat, calving and movement. In addition, the plan defers leasing on the Teshekpuk Lake itself, which is 211,000 acres, the decision states.

But environmental groups say the protections are not sufficient. "The crude breakup of the area around Teshekpuk Lake will result in tens of thousands of sensitive molting geese and 45,000 caribou being surrounded by roads, pipelines, airstrips, gravel mines and industrial sprawl," according to a statement released yesterday by The Wilderness Society, Audubon Alaska and other groups.

BLM said yesterday that a lease sale in the newly opened area could occur this fall. Ditton said production would probably not begin for roughly seven to nine years after that, in part because of study requirements to consider the effects on wildlife. This includes minimum three-year studies focused on protecting molting geese in certain areas.

"There are some pretty intensive study requirements neccessary to identify best design methods and location methods before we would put any kind of permanent facilities out there," Ditton said. BLM also said the record of decision amends the final plan issued about a year ago to include broader protections, including larger goose molting habitat protections and new study requirements.

The plan drew praise from Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski (R). "It is consistent with my administration's recommendations, and reinforces the fact that Alaska's abundant energy resources are absolutely critical to meeting our nation's energy needs," he said in a prepared statement.

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, also praised the effort. "With oil hovering at $60 a barrel and some analysts expecting it to climb higher, America must develop more of its own oil," he said in a statement.

Huffines predicted there would be new litigation against the record of decision. Several environmental groups had already filed what she calls a "place-holder" complaint against the final environmental impact statement issued a year ago. She said litigation would likely raise claims against the record of decision under statutes including the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The 23 million acre petroleum reserve was first set aside in the 1920s. The total area is estimated to contain between 5.9 billion to 13.2 billion barrels of oil, according to BLM.

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202/628-6500.