Bush Administration Hands Key Alaska Wildlife Area to Oil Industry

WASHINGTON, DC, January 13, 2006 (ENS) - Over the opposing voices of Alaska Natives, scientists, sportsmen and conservation groups, the Bush administration Wednesday opened for oil and gas leasing 100 percent of Alaska's Teshekpuk Lake Special Area.

The decision eliminates longstanding wildlife and environmental protections first put in place by Reagan administration Interior Secretary James Watt.

The 4.6 million acre area of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska is immediately west of the massive Prudhoe Bay oil field in northern Alaska bordering the Beaufort Sea. Conservationists point out that the area provides vital habitat for migratory waterfowl, caribou and other wildlife, and is an important subsistence hunting and fishing area.

Congress last month rejected a proposal to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 110 miles further east.

The Teshekpuk Lake Special Area encompasses one of the most important wetland complexes in the circumpolar Arctic. The 45,000 head Teshekpuk Lake Caribou Herd bears its calves and seeks relief from insects near Teshekpuk Lake, and it is a key summer molting or nesting location for many of North America’s migratory ducks, geese, swans, loons and other birds.

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For numerous species of wildlife, the network of coastal lagoons, deep-water lakes, wet sedge grass meadows and river deltas of the Teshekpuk Lake area are unsurpassed habitat. (Photo courtesy Northern Alaska Environmental Center)
Alaska Natives rely on the area for subsistence fishing and hunting, especially caribou hunts. Brant and other waterfowl that migrate there are harvested for both subsistence and sport in Alaska and in many of the Lower 48 states.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Chad Calvert, who approved the changes to allow drilling, said the amended plan will guide leasing, exploration and development in the Petroleum Reserve for the next 10 to 20 years. He said the lease stipulations and required operating procedures used will be similar to those adopted for the adjacent northwest area of the Petroleum Reserve in 2004.

Conservationists were dismayed by the decision. “The administration today opened 100 percent of the northeast NPRA to drilling," said Eleanor Huffines of the Wilderness Society. "Apparently 87 percent wasn’t enough for the oil companies."

"Even more outrageous is the administration’s attempt to dress this up that as ‘environmentally responsible’ decision,” Huffines said. “This decision ignores the voices of leading scientists, sportsmen from across the nation, and the Alaska Native people who depend on the wildlife and subsistence resources of the region.”

The Interior Department’s decision to open a prime waterfowl area in northern Alaska to oil and gas drilling is radical and unbalanced, said REP, the national grassroots organization of Republicans for Environmental Protection.

"When the administration eliminates conservation measures that even James Watt believed were necessary, you know that its land management policies are unbalanced in the extreme," said Jim DiPeso, policy director of REP.

"The wetlands around Alaska's Teshekpuk Lake are one of the premier North American places for producing migratory waterfowl, which are treasured by hunters throughout the West. Since Watt protected the lake, every subsequent administration has maintained those protections – until now," DiPeso said.

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Teshekpuk caribou in winter (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
The Bush administration’s efforts to open the Teshekpuk Lake area to drilling have consistently drawn fire from a variety of groups and government agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the California Waterfowl Association, Ducks Unlimited, the Pacific Flyway Council, Wildlife Management Institute, the Wildlife Society, the Nature Conservancy and numerous other conservation groups.

In addition, 200 ornithologists and other wildlife professionals, and a bipartisan group of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus called for Teshekpuk Lake area protections to remain in place.

The groups say the Teshekpuk Lake area was targeted for drilling by the industry-dominated Energy Task Force headed by Vice President Dick Cheney in 2001.

“This plan is utterly unbalanced: even the Reagan administration protected the waterfowl habitat around Teshekpuk Lake because of its world-class ecological and cultural value,” said Stan Senner, executive director, Audubon Alaska.

“No one should be fooled by the window dressing in this document: this plan makes every last acre available for oil development. The administration has decided that there isn’t one acre of this magnificent region that should be protected,” Senner said.

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Map of caribou ranges in the Alaskan Arctic (Map courtesy USFWS)
In 1998, then Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt established an oil and gas leasing plan for the Northeast Planning Area of the Reserve, which kept much of the sensitive habitat around Teshekpuk Lake off-limits to leasing or permanent infrastructure. But in 2003, the Bush administration announced its effort to discard the 1998 plan.

In June 2004, the Bush administration released a draft proposal to open 96 percent of the Reserve’s Northeast Planning Area to leasing. The administration’s draft plan drew strong public opposition, but the revised final plan goes even further by opening 100 percent of the Northeast Reserve to leasing.

The new plan fragments the area north and east of the lake into seven large tracts, completely open to leasing. Conservation groups say this fragmentation of the area around Teshekpuk Lake will result in more than 100,000 sensitive molting geese and 45,000 caribou being surrounded by roads, pipelines, airstrips, gravel mines and industrial sprawl.

The estimated oil and gas quantities in the area amount to three months of domestic oil consumption and two months of domestic gas use, REP America estimates. The oil production from the Teshekpuk Lake area will not be large enough to have any impact on oil prices, since petroleum is priced in a global market.