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Oil Drilling Debate Turns to 2nd Alaska Site

Ecology: Exploration has begun at the North Slope tract. Activists worry about wildlife.


ANCHORAGE — While the Bush administration appears to have lost its bid to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, the Interior Department is preparing to allow oil leasing on an even larger tract of pristine coastal land on the other side of Alaska's North Slope.

Unlike the refuge, the 9.6 million acres within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, west of the Prudhoe Bay oil field, would not require further congressional approval before oil and gas exploration could expand in 2004.

Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton has ordered federal land managers to move quickly to expand leasing within the reserve, where the oil industry found potentially significant deposits during an initial lease sale on 4.6 million acres opened for exploration in 1999.

The amount of oil underlying the reserve won't be known until May, when the U.S. Geological Survey completes its study, though the quantities are likely much less than what the Arctic refuge holds. A draft environmental impact statement on expanded leasing in the reserve is due to be completed at the end of this year.

The reserve is the summer home to millions of migratory birds, the largest lake in the American Arctic and half a million caribou. With 23.5 million acres, the NPRA is the largest tract of undeveloped land in North America. It has not galvanized opponents the way the proposal to open up 2,000 acres in ANWR has because it is not a designated wildlife refuge and because its wide sweep of tundra can potentially accommodate wildlife and oil wells more easily than the narrow ribbon of coast in the Arctic refuge.

"The NPRA doesn't get the level of attention for developing areas of protection that it should, primarily because a lot of the attention is focused on trying to protect the Arctic refuge," said Deb Moore of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center.

In the meantime, center officials said in a recent report, "a vast wildlands in Alaska's western Arctic stands to be defaced and irrevocably transfigured."

Clinton Administration Got the Ball Rolling

The Clinton administration started recent exploration within the reserve, signing leases on 1 million acres in the northeastern section nearest the Prudhoe Bay and Kuparuk oil fields in 1999. At the time, there was speculation that the move could help take development pressure off the Arctic refuge, 100 miles to the east.

But the Bush administration has moved forward on both fronts, citing the nation's dependence on volatile foreign oil suppliers. As early as June 3, the federal Bureau of Land Management will reopen the 4.6-million-acre northeast quadrant originally offered for leasing in 1999, confident that recent oil discoveries there will boost interest in about 3 million acres still available.

The petroleum reserve was created in 1923 as a source of oil for the U.S. naval fleet. President Ford transferred management to the Department of Interior in 1976, with special provisions for protecting natural resources in two of its most stunning areas: Teshekpuk Lake and the Colville River bluffs, a major nesting area for peregrine falcon and other raptors.

Both are considered world-class wildlife areas. Up to a quarter of the Pacific flyway population of brant (33,000 were counted one year) molt near the lake, and up to 27,000 Canada geese have been counted in some years. Both areas were largely set aside during the 1999 lease sales.

But conservation groups say there are areas elsewhere in the reserve that also deserve protection because of their importance as wildlife habitats or archeological treasures (evidence of human habitation in this part of the Arctic dates back 11,000 years).

"The ecological integrity of the North Slope is at serious risk from unplanned, piecemeal and damaging development. The most biologically rich and recognized wildlife and wilderness values of the region are not permanently protected," those groups told the Bureau of Land Management.

Conservation groups have also raised concerns about moose, gray wolves, grizzly bears, polar bears, seals and beluga whales that depend on the reserve, along with the 400,000 to 450,000 caribou of the Western Arctic herd, the largest in America. The herd's concentrated calving area lies mostly along the southwest border of the area proposed for oil drilling in 2004.

Audubon Alaska and other groups have urged the bureau to invest in comprehensive studies now to allow oil development to proceed in a way that would protect the reserve's most important resources.

"NPRA was set up a long time ago as a petroleum reserve, so we don't have the same political and legal opportunities to try and protect a vast area of it," said Stan Senner of Audubon Alaska.

"Our biggest concern is that, down the road 25 years from now, there will be this willy-nilly spider web of development all across the NPRA, connected by roads or pipelines," Senner said.

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