From: H. Josef Hebert, Associated Press
Published January 13, 2006 12:00 AM

Interior Department Clears Way for Oil Leases in Lake Region of Alaska's North Slope

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Interior Department is opening to oil and gas development almost half a million acres (202,350 hectares) of federal land in an ecologically sensitive area of Alaska's North Slope.


The area has been off-limits for decades to protect caribou and migratory birds.


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


The plan opens seven leasing areas from 45,000 acres to 60,000 acres (18,210 hectares to 24,280 hectares) 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 contains about 2 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil and 3.5 trillion cubic feet (105 billion cubic meters) of natural gas.


Henri Bisson, the BLM'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.


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


Environmentalists 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.


The National Petroleum Reserve Alaska is a 22-million-acre (8.9-million-hectare) area the government set aside in 1923 for its oil and gas resources. It is west of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields and is different from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, east of Prudhoe Bay, which has been at the center of a dispute in Congress over oil development.


Most of the petroleum reserve area was opened to development in the 1990s but not the 4.6-million-acre (1.9-million-hectare) northeast section that includes the ecologically sensitive Lake Teshekpuk region. It has been protected for decades because of the migratory birds and caribou, and 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 Bureau of Land Management's restrictions on development in the lake area "window-dressing" to disguise that drilling will be allowed in what she called one of the North Slope's most important wetland areas.


The Bureau of Land Management concluded a year ago that oil and gas exploration in the northeastern section can be conducted with "minimal impact" on the area's wildlife. Wednesday's decision represents a final go-ahead for development.


Source: Associated Press


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