Interior Secretary OKs Alaska Drilling Plan

From Associated Press

Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton signed off on a plan Thursday for managing 8.8 million acres of Alaska’s North Slope and opening most of the acreage to oil and gas development.

Some of the drilling could occur in areas important for migratory birds, whales and wildlife.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management will use the plan to manage a northwest portion of the government’s 23.5-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Geologists believe the reserve may contain 6 billion to 13 billion barrels of oil.


It is located just west of the 1.5-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which President Bush also wants to open to drilling as one of his top energy priorities. The Senate, in debating a massive energy bill, has rejected drilling there.

Environmentalists said the management plan threatens the health of Arctic tundra, ponds and lakes that are home to wildlife and migratory birds and that provide a vital hunting and fishing ground for native Alaskans.

“It makes no sense to industrialize this incomparable wilderness area when there’s only about six months’ worth of economically recoverable oil ... and it would take at least 10 years to get it to market,” said Charles Clusen, director of the Alaska lands project for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The plan makes 7.23 million acres available for energy leasing, but will defer leasing the other 1.57 million acres for a decade to see if more environmental studies are needed, Interior Department officials said.

All energy leases will be subject to strict environmental standards, the officials said, while other provisions are meant to protect water quality, vegetation, wetlands, fish and wildlife habitats and subsistence uses.

The Interior Department proposed the management plan in January 2003. With few changes, the plan includes creation of a 102,000-acre Kasegaluk Lagoon Special Area fenced off from leasing. It is considered particularly sensitive, as it is home to beluga whales, spotted seals and the black brandt, a migratory wild goose.


The plan designates special study areas of more than a half-million acres each for the Pacific black brandt and caribou.

Norton said oil and gas from the North Slope will help increase domestic energy production and stabilize prices.

The reserve was set aside in the 1920s for potential energy development.