WASHINGTON - As President George W. Bush took his oath of office on
Inauguration Day, the Bureau of Land Management's director in Alaska
announced plans for winter oil and gas exploration and coal mining in the
National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. NPRA's northeast portion, on Alaska's
North Slope, is primary caribou habitat, a molting ground for wild geese
and waterfowl, and a center of subsistence harvesting. The geese and
caribou migrate from the area in the winter, leading to BLM's conclusion
that restricted winter exploration and drilling can be done with minimal
intrusion on the environment.
The conclusion is bound to be controversial, given the high profile of
environmental issues in Alaska.
The Jan. 20 date of Henri Bisson's speech in Anchorage, Alaska, may have
been coincidental, but it dovetails efficiently with a Bush priority - the
Republican Party's upcoming all-out effort to pass law permitting oil and
gas exploration and extraction in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. The
NPRA North Slope lands are not within ANWR; but lease tracts there and the
accompanying explanations bolster the argument and build the momentum for
opening ANWR. The rush is on.
The refuge cannot be opened to oil and gas interests without an act of
Congress. NPRA, on the other hand, has been established specifically to
yield oil in times of national need; and most if its acreage has been
tapped for that purpose. But environmental considerations have kept the
northeast portion off-limits, even though it is the most oil-rich section
of NPRA lands on Alaska's North Slope. The BLM decision to open lease
tracts means Interior Secretary Gale Norton could sign off after a 30-day
comment period and a lease sale would go forward in July, with exploration
in the coming winter and actual extraction anticipated by the winter of
But court processes could also alter that timetable. "I have been told flat
out that we are going to be sued and to expect an all-out fight to the
finish to keep this from happening," Bisson said.
The BLM decision represents new ground for the federal government in NPRA
leasing. The lease tracts proposed for sale range in size from 46,000 to
59,000 acres; previously no lease tract here has exceeded 5,000 acres. The
key lease tracts are north of Lake Teshekpuk - key habitat for the caribou,
geese and waterfowl, as Bisson acknowledged:
"... We have identified 217,000 acres north of Teshekpuk Lake within these
proposed lease tracts as key habitat for molting geese and other waterfowl.
These areas also provide important habitat for caribou to use for insect
relief. Another 16,000 plus acres east of the lake provides a very
important corridor for caribou migration. A 141,000-acre area
south/southeast of the lake is important for caribou calving and insect
relief. We will let industry lease and explore these three areas in winter,
but leases will have No Surface Occupancy stipulations attached to any
permanent oil and gas development.
"Within the seven proposed lease tracts, we have identified specific lands
that cannot be impacted by development and lands where development can be
located. Each tract would have a maximum limit of 300 acres of permanent
surface disturbance permitted. This would not include linear features, such
as a pipeline."
BLM's interest in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska is not limited to
oil and gas. Somewhat discrediting his earlier insistence that "a spider
web of development" would not mean environmental values will be lost "once
things get going" and the pressures of development kick in, Bisson
insinuated that the agency's next major step will be to recommend lease
tracts for coal and mineral mining in another section of the reserve.
"I expect we will soon announce the start of scoping for 10.1 million acres
in the southern National Petroleum Reserve, probably in April. This area
contains the most significant caribou calving area on the North Slope and
the headwaters for the Colville River. This plan will likely be the most
controversial of the National Petroleum Reserve plans and will be of major
interest to the mining industry ... the foothills of the Brooks Range have
some significant mineral deposits. This portion of the Petroleum Reserve
also contains significant coal reserves. But, the Petroleum Reserve is
currently unavailable for mining claim location or coal leasing.
Congressional action would be necessary to change this."
Within the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, the Gwich'in - "Caribou people"
as they call themselves for their reliance on the great herds as they
migrate - have long resisted oil and gas exploration and development,
fearing disruption of the migration routes among other things.
Another Native group within the refuge, the Inupiat, welcome development.
In keeping with still-controversial provisions of the Alaska Native Claims
Settlement Act in the 1970s, proceeds from Alaska public lands pay handsome
dividends to the state economy and to citizens of the state.
Caribou, geese, waterfowl and fish do not, of course, consult man-made
boundary lines in their migrations, meaning their routes can be as
vulnerable outside ANWR as within it.