IMAGE: WETLANDS ON LAKE TESHEKPUK
Northern Alaska Environmental Center
Alaska's Lake Teshekpuk includes miles of wetlands, where drilling will be allowed.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/12/2006 10:25:59 AM ET 2006-01-12T15:25:59

The Bush administration has opened nearly half a million acres of federal land in northeastern Alaska to oil drilling — a move blasted by environmentalists but praised by industry, which notes the area is in a long-designated petroleum reserve.

The Interior Department on Wednesday said it would allow oil development in virtually all of the wetlands surrounding Lake Teshekpuk in the northeast corner of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. The lake region includes one of the most important molting areas in the Arctic for wild geese and areas sought out by caribou herds for calving.

The lake is the biological “heart” of the region, said Dora Nukapigak, a resident of the Inupiat village of Nuiqsut, the community closest to Teshekpuk. The lake is about 80 miles east of Point Barrow, Alaska’s northernmost point.

“It’s our garden. It’s where we gather our food,” Nukapigak said.

Steps to minimize impact
The plan calls for opening seven leasing areas, from 45,000 acres to 60,000 acres, north of the lake and other acreage south of the lake to oil and gas development. The government estimates that the areas surrounding Lake Teshekpuk contain about 2 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil and 3.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Henri Bisson, the Bureau of Land Management’s director in Alaska, said the leasing program would include thousands of acres around the lake where no surface facilities — except for pipelines — would be allowed as a way to protect caribou calving areas and geese molting areas.

“We think we have a very (environmentally) responsible proposal here,” Bisson said, noting that surface facilities, including roads and drilling pads, would be limited to no more than 300 acres for each leasing area.

In 1923 the government set aside the 22 million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska for its oil and gas resources. It is located west of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields; the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which has been at the center of a drilling dispute in Congress, is east of Prudhoe Bay.

The U.S. Senate last month once again blocked attempts to open ANWR to drilling.

Activists respond
Environmentalists and called the restrictions inadequate.

“It’s not good for the geese and it’s not good for the caribou,” said Stanley Senner, executive director of the Audubon Society in Alaska. He said the plan enables construction of scattered oil and gas facilities, airstrips and gravel mines in an area that long has been protected from oil development.

“This is fundamentally an industrialization of a critical wildlife habitat that should be, by any measure, protected,” Senner said.

Most of the NPRA was opened to development in the 1990s, but not the 4.6 million-acre northeast section that includes the ecologically sensitive Lake Teshekpuk region. It had been expected that most of the northeast region also was slated for leasing, but environmentalists had hoped to keep oil rigs out of the region around Lake Teshekpuk.

“Apparently 87 percent (of the region) wasn’t enough for the oil companies,” said Eleanor Huffines, Alaska director for the Wilderness Society. She called the BLM’s restrictions on development in the lake area “window dressing” to disguise the fact that drilling will be allowed in what she called one of the North Slope’s most important wetland areas.

Industry ‘excited’
Advocates say the region is a source for oil and natural gas needed by the United States.

Drilling in the region would bring more companies to Alaska, said Judy Brady, executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association. “We’re very excited about that.”

An oil lease sale could be held in September, and oil drilling could follow as soon as the winter of 2007-08.

With ANWR closed to exploration, the oil industry is likely to be attracted to the new opportunity, said Bisson. “We believe there will be a lot of interest. It’s the most significant oil prospect on the North Slope, absent ANWR,” he said.

The BLM concluded a year ago that oil and gas exploration in the northeastern section can be conducted with “minimal impact” on the area’s wildlife. The decision Wednesday represents a final go-ahead for such development.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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