Thursday, January 12, 2006

Interior Department to Open Alaskan Land to Oil Drilling
Interior Department to Open Alaskan Land to Oil Drilling
Environmentalists Question Statement That Exploration Can Have Minimal Impact on Wildlife

By Justin Blum
Washington Post Staff Writer

The Interior Department yesterday agreed to open about 400,000 acres on Alaska's North Slope for exploratory oil drilling, an area that previously had been off limits because of concerns about the impact on wildlife.

Officials said they would lease acreage in the northeastern corner of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska to oil companies to provide access to domestic oil supplies.

"We recognize . . . the energy needs of this nation," said Susan Childs, an official with the Bureau of Land Management. "So, hopefully, this will alleviate some of the pressure."

Government officials said that the area of the preserve opened yesterday has significant potential for oil development. They estimate it contains about 2 billion barrels of oil that is economically recoverable, along with 3.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The United States consumes more than 20 million barrels of oil per day.

Much of the 23.5 million-acre petroleum reserve already is open to oil development. The reserve, created in 1923, is located west of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, long a flashpoint in the debate over allowing oil drilling versus protecting the environment.

Childs said the land opened yesterday could be drilled with "minimal" impact on wildlife, a conclusion that environmentalists dispute.

The area -- particularly near Teshekpuk Lake -- has been a focal point of concern among environmentalists. They say oil operations would disrupt an area where thousands of brant geese and white-fronted geese molt. They also predicted harm to caribou and tundra swans.

"This is the single most important goose molting area in the arctic," said Stanley Senner, executive director of Audubon Alaska. "It will mean fewer birds."

The Bureau of Land Management proposed opening the area a year ago. But it was not until yesterday that an Interior Department official, Deputy Assistant Secretary Chad Calvert, approved a modified version of that plan.

The area near Teshekpuk Lake was put off limits to drilling during the Reagan administration. The Clinton administration expanded the restricted area.

But the Bureau of Land Management says technological advances in oil drilling allow drilling to occur without the impact previously feared. Drilling will be allowed about a quarter-mile from the lake.

Bureau officials said they would conduct further study on the impact to molting geese before allowing permanent drilling.