WASHINGTON - Interior Secretary Gale Norton signed off on a plan Thursday to open 8.8 million acres of Alaska's North Slope to oil and gas development, some in areas important for migratory birds, whales and wildlife.
The Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management will use the plan to manage a northwest portion of the government's 23.5 million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Geologists believe that reserve may contain 6 billion to 13 billion barrels of oil.
It is located just west of the 1.5 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which President Bush wants to open to drilling as part of a massive energy bill stalled in the Senate.
Environmentalists said the management plan threatens the health of Arctic tundra, ponds and lakes that are home to wildlife and migratory birds and provide a vital subsistence hunting and fishing ground for Native Alaskans.
"What makes this even worse is that BLM has failed to study the effects of oil activities on the environment like it has promised to do," said Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League.
The plan makes 7.23 million acres available for energy leasing, but will defer leasing the other 1.57 million acres for a decade to see if more environmental studies are needed, Interior Department officials said.
All energy leases will be subject to strict environmental standards, the officials said, while other provisions are meant to protect water quality, vegetation, wetlands, fish and wildlife habitats and subsistence uses.
The Interior Department proposed the management plan in January 2003. With few changes, the plan includes creation of a 102,000-acre Kasegaluk Lagoon Special Area fenced off from leasing. It is considered particularly sensitive, as it is home to beluga whales, spotted seals and the black brant, a migratory wild goose.
The plan designates special study areas of more than a half-million acres each for the Pacific black brant and caribou. It also requires habitat studies for eiders, a bird whose existence is imperiled, and yellow-billed loons, and sets restrictions to minimize loss of foraging habitat for raptors around the Colville River Special Area.
Norton said oil and gas from the North Slope will help increase domestic energy production and stabilize prices in the long term.
"This plan will help produce energy in an environmentally responsible manner with the best available technology, while protecting the important biological, subsistence and cultural values found in this area," she said.
The reserve was set aside in the 1920s for potential energy development.
Environmentalists said the management plan rewards Bush administration friends in the oil and gas industry.
"This decision certainly gives big oil and gas plenty to be thankful for," said Eleanor Huffines, regional director in Alaska for The Wilderness Society.
The BLM can now modify or waive environmental safeguards on a case-by-case basis for economic reasons, environmentalists said.