From: H. Josef Hebert, Associated Press
Published August 30, 2006 12:00 AM

Interior Secretary Says North Slope Drilling Is Safe, Will Proceed

BARROW, Alaska — Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne declared after a helicopter tour that drilling will proceed in a North Slope region that has become the focus of a new dispute over Alaska oil drilling.


He said the area's wildlife will be protected.


Some members of Congress and environmentalists have argued that problems with pipeline spills at Prudhoe Bay and pipeline corrosion 200 miles to the west makes opening an ecologically sensitive area of the North Slope to oil companies especially questionable.


But Kempthorne said Tuesday after seeing the region in person from the air that he is more convinced than ever energy production can coincide with environmental protection.


"We're set to go forward," said Kempthorne, whose department will sell oil leases to nearly 500,000 acres north and east of Lake Teshekpuk, an area environmentalists maintain should be protected because of its value to caribou and as molting grounds for tens of thousands of geese.


In his first trip to Alaska's North Slope, Kempthorne was scheduled to tour the Prudhoe Bay fields on Wednesday and get a briefing on the pipeline corrosion problems on Wednesday. Included on the schedule was a stop at the site where a pipeline leak last March spilled 270,000 gallons of oil onto the Alaska tundra.


That spill triggered new requirements from the federal Transportation Department for testing and the discovery of serious corrosion in much of BP Alaska's pipes and a partial shutdown of Prudhoe Bay oil production.


The Transportation Department regulates pipelines and the Prudhoe Bay fields are on state land and not subject to federal leases. But Kempthorne said he hopes his visit with BP Alaska officials will provide insights on how to proceed with development around Lake Teshekpuk in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, an area set aside in 1923 for its energy resource.


"We want to make sure there's not a repeat of that," Kempthorne said, referring to the BP Alaska pipeline corrosion problem.


The Bureau of Land Management is scheduled to issue leases for oil and gas drilling near the lake on Sept. 27.


Kempthorne said his helicopter trip over the lagoons and marshland that surround the lake gave him a clearer picture of how drilling would be restricted along corridors used by caribou and by buffer zones around geese molting areas.


Henri Bisson, the BLM's Alaska director, said only 300 acres within areas that range between 45,000 and 65,000 acres would be made available for drilling platforms. "It is a minuscule footprint," said Bisson, who accompanied Kempthorne in the helicopter tour.


But conservationists and some members of Congress have urged Kempthorne to postpone the leasing. Even some local North Slope officials, whose communities have financially benefited from oil development, express reservations about opening the Lake Teshekpuk area to oil leasing.


North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta contends "the risks outweigh the benefits" if drilling interferes with subsistence hunting in the region and that the lake area "should remain off limits."


Itta, who hosted Kempthorne on Tuesday, remains skeptical of the leasing plan, but has softened his opposition after being assured that the borough would participate in future mitigation efforts as development gets closer.


Kempthorne said no oil is likely to come out of the lake region for a decade and that a series of environmental reviews will be part of the process that leads to actual oil development.


Environmentalists argue that BP's problems demonstrate the potential risks associated with oil drilling and shipment and that there are certain areas such as the Lake Teshekpuk region that should be declared off limits. The Interior Department during the Clinton administration proposed a broad leasing plan for the NPRA, but excluded the lake area.


Since then, a lot has changed, drilling advocates argue.


"Look at what the price of oil is right now," said Bisson. "We're talking about 2 billion-plus barrels of oil that with biological sensitivity can be developed. You can't just walk away from it."


Source: Associated Press


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