Ignoring vocal opposition from Alaska Natives, scientists, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and sportsmen, the Bush administration today opened for oil and gas leasing 100 percent of the internationally significant Teshekpuk Lake Special Area in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPRA). The decision eliminates long-established wildlife and environmental protections first put in place by Reagan administration Interior Secretary James Watt.
The Teshekpuk Lake area was targeted for drilling by the industry-dominated Energy Task Force headed by Vice President Dick Cheney in 2001. The 4.6 million-acre area of the NPRA is immediately west of the massive Prudhoe Bay oil field in far northern Alaska bordering the Beaufort Sea, and provides vital habitat for migratory waterfowl, caribou, and other wildlife, and is an important subsistence hunting and fishing area. Congress last month decisively rejected a proposal to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 110 miles farther to the east.
“The administration today opened 100 percent of the northeast NPRA to drilling. Apparently 87 percent wasn’t enough for the oil companies. Even more outrageous is the administration’s attempt to dress this up as an “environmentally responsible’ decision,” stated Eleanor Huffines, Alaska Regional Director of The Wilderness Society. “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 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. It is heavily used by Alaska Natives for subsistence fishing and hunting, especially caribou hunts. Brant and other waterfowl that migrate here are harvested for both subsistence and sport in Alaska and in many of the Lower 48 states.
“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.”
In March of 2005, seven conservation groups filed a complaint in the US District Court challenging the final environmental impact statement that recommended opening the area to leasing. The groups challenged the failure to include an in-depth analysis of the environmental harm that oil development would cause to the sensitive area. “The decision announced today was the worst possible outcome for the Teshekpuk Lake area. We’ll be amending our legal challenge to include additional claims based on this outrageous decision,” said Earthjustice staff attorney, Deirdre McDonnell.
The current administration’s efforts to open the Teshekpuk Lake area to drilling have consistently drawn fire from a variety of groups, including the California Waterfowl Association, Ducks Unlimited, the Pacific Flyway Council, Wildlife Management Institute, The Wildlife Society, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Environmental Protection Agency, The Nature Conservancy and numerous 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.
Congress and three Secretaries of the Interior have recognized the ecological importance of the area around Teshekpuk Lake. The new plan approved today fragments the area north and east of the lake into seven large tracts, completely open to leasing. The crude breakup of the area around Teshekpuk Lake would result in tens of thousands of sensitive molting geese and 45,000 caribou being surrounded by roads, pipelines, airstrips, gravel mines and industrial sprawl.