Lawmakers Urge Interior to Delay Teshekpuk Lake Leasing

A bipartisan group of House lawmakers has asked Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to delay September's planned oil and gas lease sale in the northeast section of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and bar leasing in sensitive areas around Teshekpuk Lake.

In an August 4 letter, the lawmakers say leasing plans could harm caribou and migratory birds in "one of the most important wetland complexes in the Arctic." It also says leasing could affect subsistence resources for native peoples.

The letter from several dozen members asks Interior to delay the "tentatively scheduled" sale and restore protections for areas north and east of the lake. It is signed by Democrats and moderate Republicans. Signers include Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, as well as Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.).

It follows a similar effort by Senate Democrats earlier this summer (Greenwire, July 3).

Interior this year completed a controversial plan that allows leasing in parts of the 4.6 million acre northeast section of the reserve that had been restricted under prior administrations. The letter notes that James Watt, interior secretary under President Reagan, did not open areas north and east of the lake.

Interior says the leasing plan provides access to promising areas for oil and gas production while requiring important ecological protections, including special "goose molting areas," and limits on permanent facilities except pipelines in several habitat areas.

But the House members say the plan nonetheless jeopardizes the area around the lake. "The thirty years of formal protection for these sensitive resources were put aside by Interior in its recent decision to proceed with a lease sale in this area," the letter states. The Bush administration plan includes almost 400,000 acres -- including areas around the lake -- that were not included in a Clinton-era plan.

The letter acknowledges that oil and gas production is a central purpose of the reserve, which was first established in the 1920s. But the lawmakers also say that Congress, in the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act of 1976, requires maximum protections for the environmental and subsistence resources in the Teshekpuk Lake area.

Interior could not be reached for comment on the new letter.

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