May 18, 2008

Bush Reverses Position on Arctic Drilling

Reversing its previous position, the Bush administration's Bureau of Land Management proposed Friday a 10-year ban on drilling in Arctic Alaska due to environmental concerns for the potentially oil-rich wetlands. 

Environmentalists praised the reversal, which would include a leasing moratorium for 430,000 acres of wetlands north and east of vast Teshekpuk Lake in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

"This plan provides a balanced approach to energy development and wildlife protection, and forms a solid basis for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to proceed with an oil and gas lease sale later this year," said Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne in a statement.

The region includes the North Slope's biggest freshwater lake, and is believed to be potentially rich in oil and gas.  However, the lake also serves as a critical habitat for caribou and migrating birds. Just two years ago, the administration supported selling leases to energy companies wishing to drill in the area. But a lawsuit by native groups and environmentalists pushed the agency to reconsider the plan in late 2006.

"Extensive public comment, input from the local government and practical considerations contributed to the policy change," Jim Ducker, a BLM environmental program analyst, told Reuters. The area is 40 to 70 miles away from any oil-field infrastructure, he added.

"Our thinking is, it's pretty darn unlikely that we're going to have any development there" in the near future," he said.

According to Ducker, the BLM is optimistic the new plan will result in a lease sale this fall that would include the same areas the Clinton administration offered for lease in 1999. Geologists estimate the region contains 2.8 billion barrels of oil, with 800 million barrels in the deferral area, Ducker said.

Environmentalists were delighted with the BLM's revised proposal.

"It is a win," Stan Senner, executive director of Audubon Alaska, told Reuters. The organization is one of the groups campaigning for preservation.  

"I think they've responded to public interest in seeing that the area's protected, and it gives people who care about the place time to work on a permanent solution."

"The lease sale can proceed while one of the region's most sensitive wildlife habitats will be protected. It's a win-win," said North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta, according to the BLM's announcement.

The borough had opposed oil development in the area because of its significance to the Inupiat Eskimo hunter, and was enlisted to assist in assembling the new proposal after a federal judge invalidated the earlier leasing plan.

The 23 million acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, on the central North Slope, was originally created in 1923 as a possible source of energy for the military. Exploration of the area has proceeded sporadically since the 1940s, with nearly all of the successful oil development occurring on state land east of the North Slope's reserve.

However, industry interest in the petroleum reserve re-emerged in the 1990s, following Arco Alaska Inc.'s discovery of an oil field on state land bordering the federal unit. Alpine is now run by ConocoPhillips, Arco's successor. Although there has never been any commercial oil production in the reserve, ConocoPhillips, along with its partner Anadarko, intend to develop satellite fields on the federal land.