ANCHORAGE - Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt slammed a Bush administration plan to open nearly 400,000 more acres for oil and gas drilling in Alaska, saying Tuesday it violates environmental safeguards implemented by the Clinton administration.
"I'm a private citizen now and what I can do is speak up," Babbitt said in a telephone news conference. "That's what I'm doing."
The federal plan, announced in early June, is part of a proposed Bureau of Land Management amendment to a 1998 development plan for the northeastern region of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
Under the proposal, development would be open on about 96 percent of the 4.6 million acres of the region along the state's North Slope. The original plan opened 87 percent of the area, protecting vulnerable wildlife habitat, including Teshekpuk Lake in northern Alaska.
"That lake is the biological heart of the western Arctic," Babbitt said, adding the government should focus on the land already available. "There's a slice of pie on your plate. Why don't you eat it before you ask for more?"
BLM officials have said the 387,000-acre expansion is necessary and would increase potential oil reserves from 600 million barrels to 2.1 million barrels.
Environmentalists and other critics said the plan would endanger sensitive wetlands and wildlife habitat, particularly around Teshekpuk Lake, a vast seasonal haven for caribou and migrating waterfowl. Developing it would disturb a delicate ecological system that has fed subsistence hunters for hundreds of years, said John Schoen, a senior scientist with the National Audubon Society's Alaska chapter.
"If this area is degraded, the impacts will be felt not only in Alaska but in the lower 48 states, Mexico and Siberia," Schoen said. "The science is pretty darn clear and scientists are quite united in recognizing the risk on Teshekpuk Lake."
Those worries are unfounded, given numerous protection measures, including land-only drilling, in the proposed plan, said Judy Brady, executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, an industry organization.
"There's a long, long list of stipulations that come from experience," Brady said. "You no longer can say we don't know how to work in the arctic. We've managed to develop oil there in the last 30, 40 years without endangering wildlife. I'm a little puzzled that former Secretary Babbitt would have these concerns, other than because environmental concerns have become a party issue, an issue in the presidential election."
The entire reserve covers about 23.5 million acres of public land west of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Prudhoe Bay. Total oil reserves in the NPR-A are estimated at between 6 billion and 13 billion barrels of oil.
Seven environmental groups, including the Audubon Society, have sued in federal court to prevent oil and gas drilling in the northwest area.
The lawsuit contends development in the region violates environmental protection laws and ignores sensitive habitat for birds, wildlife and whales. In May, a federal judge considering the lawsuit denied a request for a temporary injunction.
Public meetings on the new proposal will be held across Alaska and in Washington, D.C., over the next month.