The Interior Department will today release a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for more oil and gas leasing in the northwest part of the nation's largest remaining block of unprotected public land - the misnamed National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A). This globally distinct area is home to some of the most unique wildlife and wild land found in America.
While the DEIS is not expected to indicate a "preferred alternative," a coalition of environmental groups charge that this effort is an attempt to lease most, if not all, of the close to 9 million-acre Northwest Planning Area of the NPR-A for oil and gas drilling. Leasing of the entire area would be the largest single onshore offering to industry in the history of America's Arctic.
Like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the east and the Arctic Ocean to the north, the 23-million-acre NPR-A - also known as the Western Arctic - has been targeted by the Bush administration as a priority for drilling. Thus, conservationists are concerned that the final decision, issued after the 60-day public comment period, will call for oil and gas leasing in virtually all of the Western Arctic.
"The ecological integrity of America's Western Arctic is at grave risk from poorly planned and damaging development," said Eleanor Huffines of The Wilderness Society, noting that the most biologically rich and recognized wildlife, subsistence and wilderness values of the region are not permanently protected. "What is needed is a balanced approach to the management of these natural resources across the entire North Slope to protect the most sensitive areas and cultures."
"The administration shouldn't be rushing to open up huge swaths of the Arctic without protecting the most outstanding natural wonders for future generations," agreed Earthjustice Juneau's Deirdre McDonnell. "This is about greed. No matter how much the oil companies get, they keep coming back for more. And the Bush administration is only too happy to oblige."
Twenty percent of the NPR-A has already been sold to oil interests; if the entire Northwest Planning Area is also sacrificed, 60 percent of the Western Arctic could become another spiderweb of roads, drill pads, pipelines, and processing facilities, adding to the massive oil fields at Prudhoe Bay that already sprawl across 1,000 square miles. Each year, oil operations on Alaska's North Slope average nearly 400 toxic spills, and emit more than 56,000 tons of nitrogen oxides - more than half the total emissions for the entire state of New Jersey. "The Bush administration is busy scouring the American landscape for more places to punch holes and set up oil rigs, when instead we should be investing in renewable energy and working to permanently protect special places in the Western Arctic," said Melinda Pierce, Sierra Club lobbyist.
The Western Arctic (NPR-A) includes some exceptional wildlife areas, such as Kasegaluk Lagoon - home to beluga whales, spotted seals and black brant; the Utukok Uplands - critical calving grounds for hundreds of thousands of arctic caribou; the Colville River - which supports a world-class population of nesting birds of prey; and the Teshekpuk Lake/Meade River region, where threatened spectacled eiders nest each year.
Established in 1923 as "Naval Petroleum Reserve Number 4" to be an emergency oil supply for defense purposes administered by the Navy, the NPR-A's vastness and remoteness has kept it largely undeveloped. Even during the 1973 oil embargo, potential resources in the NPR-A were still reserved solely for national defense needs. Three years later, Congress acknowledged the significant wildlife, Native Alaskan subsistence uses, and wildlife values of this area, and passed the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act, which made oil from the reserves available, but treated the Western Arctic area differently from the other reserves where production was the primary focus. Three special areas were designated administratively in recognition of their unique wildlife values: Teshekpuk Lake, Utukok Uplands, and Colville River. However, this designation does not offer any permanent protection from oil and gas leasing or other types of development.
While the DEIS is expected to contain a so-called "conservation" alternative in which less land would be leased, the primary thrust of this plan is oil and gas leasing. The Interior Department plan will likely call for eliminating or severely weakening leasing mitigation requirements compared with the prior NPR-A program. The administration's plans do not seek a ban on the construction of permanent gravel roads, gravel mines, or the siphoning of fresh water from rivers, lakes, and streams.
Conservationists note that drilling in this region is not the answer to our energy needs. "Since America possesses only three percent of the world's oil resources, but consumes 25 percent of the world's production, we cannot drill our way out of our oil import dependency," said Chuck Clusen, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Alaska Project. "Any oil produced in the Western Arctic would be only a drop in the bucket compared to the oil that can be saved with improved auto fuel efficiency."
"Alaska's Western Arctic is a jewelry box of precious gems," said Mike Matz, executive director of the Campaign for America's Wilderness. "Before we recklessly hand them over to the oil industry, we should study their value and protect some of these special places for future generations."
"If the Bush administration is serious about developing a balanced approach to energy policy and conservation, it would give complete protection to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, while acknowledging that special places within the Western Arctic are also deserving of permanent protection," said Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League.
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