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ANCHORAGE - Oil industry officials are calling for full access to a giant new chunk of North Slope land the federal government might offer for oil and gas development.
Environmental activists and others, however, said the land has valuable animal and fish habitat that should be protected.
Richard Mott, vice president of exploration and land for Conoco Phillips Alaska Inc., the state's top oil producer, said the oil industry has proved it can produce oil in the Arctic while causing little degradation to the landscape.
He and other industry players, speaking Thursday at a U.S. Bureau of Land Management public meeting at Loussac Library, urged the agency to allow full access to the 8.8 million-acre northwest section of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
The BLM must decide how much of the reserve to open for oil and gas leasing. The agency is holding public meetings and will make a decision by Nov. 3.
Conservationists are rallying around an Audubon Alaska proposal to set aside four "biological hot spots" in the northwest reserve important for caribou, polar bears, fish, eiders and many other birds.
"Let me clearly state that Audubon is not opposed to oil development in NPR-A," said John Schoen, senior scientist with Audubon.
He and others said the BLM hasn't offered an adequate set of options in its 1,000-page environmental study. The study, now out for public comment, offers four alternatives ranging from little access to near-total industry access to the land.
Oil companies are drilling in a neighboring section of the reserve, known as the northeast area.
Industry spokesmen emphasized that NPR-A has been designated a national petroleum reserve since 1923. They also stressed that recent oil and gas developments on the North Slope, like the compact Alpine oil field east of the reserve, have proved how small the industry's footprint can be on the delicate tundra and how animals like caribou seem to co-exist just fine with the oil fields.
The Audubon proposal would shut out drilling rigs from big chunks of coastal land where oil potential is greatest, industry spokesmen said.
If that had happened decades ago a bit farther east, oil companies might never have found Prudhoe Bay and Kuparuk, North America's two richest oil fields, said Tadd Owens, executive director of the Resource Development Council.
But Schoen and others said the northwest reserve has world-class populations of animals, such as peregrine falcons. The Audubon proposal would leave open about 65 percent of land with the highest oil potential, he said.
Conservationists also said the BLM alternatives didn't call for enough restrictions on industry activity, such as pumping fresh water from lakes and rivers in the reserve.
They urged the agency to embrace the Audubon alternative as a reasonable balance between living and petroleum resources.