The Bush administration today announced that it will move to lease the entire northwest planning area of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, an area encompassing nearly nine million acres. The move disregards conservationists’ calls for common sense balance between oil development and environmental protection. The NPRA, a 23.5-million-acre area, also known as America’s Western Arctic, is the largest remaining block of unprotected land in the nation and home to myriad wildlife and waterfowl.
“By ignoring a record number of comments from the American public who urged a more balanced approach that would allow drilling in non-sensitive areas but protect special areas with critical wildlife habitat, the administration has yet again put the interests of its big oil and gas friends ahead of the public interest,” said Deirdre McDonnell, an attorney with Earthjustice in Alaska.
“The administration has certainly given big oil and gas plenty to be thankful for this holiday,” said Eleanor Huffines, Alaska Regional Director of The Wilderness Society. “The Final Environmental Impact Statement announced today fails to give real protection to one single acre, resource, or cultural value. Just like the energy bill now before Congress, this plan makes drilling and spilling the dominant activities on this spectacular wildlife and culturally rich region.”
The Bush administration plan also weakens current environmental safeguards by allowing the Bureau of Land Management to modify or waive all of them on a case-by-case basis for “economic” reasons. In addition, instead of the government setting enforceable environmental standards, it allows the industry to set vague “guidelines” itself.
BLM will initially delay offering leases in some areas near Peard Bay and Kasegaluk Lagoon, but these deferrals offer no real or permanent protection for these important wildlife and subsistence resources. The decision apparently recognizes the sensitivity of these vital resources, yet makes these areas available immediately for seismic work, as well as future oil and gas development.
A report this year by the National Academy of Sciences found that after more than 25 years of drilling on Alaska’s North Slope, industrial activity has eroded wildland values, human health, clean air, and clean water over an area far exceeding the industrial oil drilling complex itself. The NAS report also reported that wildlife has suffered in a number of ways, including direct mortality and displacement, reduced reproductive rates of birds and caribou, and altered distributions of caribou and bowhead whales.
“Despite its name, the NPR-A is not a vast oil field. It is a vibrant, living landscape, vital to endangered waterfowl, migratory birds, and caribou, polar bears and other mammals. Several thousand Alaska Natives also live in the area and depend on the land for subsistence, said Stan Senner of Audubon Alaska. “Sacrificing 100 percent of this amazing place to big oil and gas is unconscionable.”
“It’s never enough for the Bush administration. They won’t be happy until every acre in America’s arctic is a wasteland filled with oil derricks, pipelines, and roads,” said Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League.
Conservationists had argued for a management plan that would allow oil and gas leasing, but would protect such places as Kasegaluk Lagoon, Peard Bay, Dease Inlet-Meade River, Southern Ikpikpuk River, and Colville River Special Area. These areas are home to polar bears, beluga whales, anadromous fish, endangered spectacled and Steller’s eiders, greater white fronted geese, nesting yellow-billed loons and peregrine falcons, and other wildlife. More than 95,000 Americans, as well as 100 scientists, had spoken out for a common sense balance, endorsing an Audubon Wildlife Habitat Alternative. The Audubon Wildlife Habitat Alternative, coupled with wilderness and wild and scenic designations, would have been a sound plan for the area.
“The administration had the chance to protect some of the nation’s last arctic gems,” said Mike Matz, executive director of the Campaign for America’s Wilderness, “and they blew it. Instead of seizing an opportunity to set aside some of the area’s treasures for our children and theirs – they have again sacrificed our public land to developers.”
The NPR-A was established in 1923 as “Naval Petroleum Reserve Number 4, ” an emergency oil supply for defense purposes administered by the Navy. 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 wilderness values of the area, and passed the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act, which transferred jurisdiction over the NPR-A from the Navy to the Department of Interior and prohibited oil development until Congress acted. 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 and Congress has yet to address the issue of permanent protection for the NPR-A.
“This is another gross example of the Bush-Cheney administration liquidating our public resources for the benefit of their friends in the oil and gas industry,” said Charles Clusen, director of NRDC’s Alaska project. “The administration wants to let the industry ruin every last acre of our remaining wilderness areas regardless of the fact that we can’t drill our way to energy independence. The United States has only three percent of the world’s oil reserves. The Middle East has 65 percent. We need to wean ourselves off oil, not destroy our natural heritage.”
“This final environmental impact statement is a blueprint for turning the Western Arctic into a wasteland,” said Sara Chapell, Alaska Representative of the Sierra Club. “It is outrageous that this decision was made with full knowledge of the National Academy of Sciences report detailing ‘persistent and widespread negative impacts’ on the air, water, landscapes, and wildlife of the region – not to mention the health of its people.”
For more information, visit www.arcticgems.org