US to lease 8 million acres in Alaska for oil and gas drilling

Critics says plan harms reserve's wildlife habitat

By Tom Doggett, Reuters | August 24, 2006

WASHINGTON -- Despite strong opposition from environmental groups, the Bush administration yesterday said it would offer energy companies next month the opportunity to search for crude oil and natural gas on 8 million acres in Alaska's western Arctic region.

The acres to be leased will be on 696 tracts in the northeast and northwest areas of the National Petroleum Reserve. Environmentalists are especially concerned because 373,000 acres north of the reserve's wetland-rich Teshekpuk Lake will be offered for lease for the first time.

About 183,200 acres relinquished since a 2002 lease sale will also be offered again to energy companies.

The Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management, which will conduct the lease sale Sept. 27, said the reserve's energy supplies are needed and steps will be taken to limit the impact of drilling at biologically sensitive areas near Teshekpuk Lake.

The reserve is estimated to hold between 5.9 billion and 13.2 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 39 trillion to 83 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

"This is a significant amount of oil that will help decrease our dependence on imported oil," said Acting Alaska Director Julia Dougan of the Bureau of Land Management.

The United States consumes close to 21 million barrels of oil a day and must import 60 percent of that amount.

However, drilling opponents argue the new oil is not worth the risk of harming the habitat for the reserve's wildlife, some of which native Inupiat residents depend on for food.

"The Teshekpuk Lake area is biologically rich nursery grounds for birds from many continents and mammals which sustain our Inupiat families and communities, and must be protected from leasing activities," said Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, former mayor of the Inupiat village of Nuiqsut, the community closest to Teshekpuk Lake.

The Bureau of Land Management said some of the reserve's sensitive areas, home to geese, waterfowl, and caribou, will be monitored and studied for three more years before exploration activities could be authorized beyond the winter months when animals migrate.

Environmental groups also questioned whether new areas in Alaska should be opened to drilling so soon after BP Plc shut down part of the Prudhoe Bay oil field due to pipeline corrosion.

"It doesn't make sense that [the Bureau of Land Management] is moving ahead with a drilling plan for Teshekpuk Lake at the same time that we, as a nation, are still trying to figure out the extent of the safety problems involved in North Slope oil and gas infrastructure," said Natalie Brandon, Policy Director for Alaska Wilderness League.

The 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve, about the size of Indiana, was created in 1923 to provide energy supplies for the U S military.

It is in the northwest corner of Alaska, near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge , which the Bush administration has sought to open to drilling but so far has been unable to convince Congress to do so.

© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Informant: binstock


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