Bush Offers to Shrink Alaska Oil Drilling Plan

Bush Offers to Shrink Alaska Oil Drilling Plan

The Bush administration, bowing to pressure from environmental groups, has offered to scale back a plan to expand oil and natural gas drilling on Alaska’s North Slope.

The U.S. Interior Department yesterday asked a court in Anchorage to allow the planned Sept. 27 sale of about 8 million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve to go forward, minus about 400,000 acres around Teshekpuk Lake, an area environmental groups consider a critical Arctic wildlife habitat.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge James Singleton in Anchorage said that an environmental impact statement prepared by the department for the entire area failed “to adequately address the cumulative effect” of drilling. The preliminary decision threatens to postpone the Sept. 27 sale.

“I hope, whether they bowed to some pressure or not, what they realize is we’ve gone too far here,” Brian Moore, a spokesman for the National Audubon Society, said in an interview. “It looks like there’s a possibility of striking some balance here and we’re encouraged by it.”

The government “believes that the ability to go forward with some leasing,” is in the public interest, according to an Interior Department brief filed yesterday. The court should “at least attempt to strike a balance between the limited nature of the environmental harm and the harm to the public interest if the opportunity to develop these important oil and gas resources is not allowed to go forward.”

Johnnie Burton, director of the department’s Minerals Management Service, yesterday said the government needed to “accommodate what the judge said,” if it hopes to proceed with the lease sale.

Energy Plan

Expanding domestic oil and gas supplies from Alaska, the Rocky Mountains and offshore is a cornerstone of the energy plan President George W. Bush presented after starting his first term in 2001. Crude-oil prices have more than doubled since Bush took office.

During an August visit to the North Slope, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said developing oil and gas in the reserve was a key part of Bush’s goal “to lessen our reliance on foreign sources of energy.”

Bush has failed to persuade Congress to allow drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 300 miles to the east of the National Petroleum Reserve. Sixty-six House members and 19 Senators wrote to Kempthorne urging him to cancel the September lease sale over concern that the project might have a negative impact on wildlife.

About 87 percent of the 23-million-acre reserve has previously been offered for drilling. The Sept. 27 sale would boost that to 95 percent, including the Teshekpuk Lake area.

“We issued a second brief to the court yesterday and the brief states our position,” Danielle Allen, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska office said in an interview.

The bureau is an agency within the Interior Department that oversees oil and gas drilling on federal lands.

Oil Reserves

The entire petroleum reserve, which fronts the Beaufort Sea between Barrow and the Colville River, might hold 9.3 billion barrels of crude oil, a 2002 U.S. Geological Survey report said. The reserve was established in 1923 as a source of oil for the U.S. Navy.

Thousands of geese gather to molt in the area, and caribou birth their calves there, according to the National Audubon Society. Two oil spills from BP Plc pipelines this year, to the east in Prudhoe Bay, have stirred concern over drilling for oil on Alaska’s tundra.

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