ANCHORAGE - The Interior Department is offering oil and gas leases on 1.8 million acres of Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve while promising to protect critical migratory bird and caribou habitat.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Friday that the Bureau of Land Management will offer 190 tracts, covering more than 2,800 square miles, with bids to be opened Aug. 11 in Anchorage. The sale is one of dozens, mostly in Western states, that Salazar announced in November.
The petroleum reserve on the North Slope was originally created by President Warren Harding in 1923 and covers 23 million acres - an area slightly smaller than the state of Indiana. It currently has 310 authorized oil and gas leases totaling more than 3 million acres.
BLM has withdrawn for lease sale consideration lands in a buffer zone around Teshekpuk Lake, citing its importance to migratory birds. The area contains significant molting habitat for black brant, Canada geese and greater white-fronted geese.
The buffer zone also includes calving grounds for the Teshekpuk caribou herd, an important source of subsistence hunting for North Slope villages. In recent years, the herd has almost doubled in size - reaching about 70,000 animals.
Salazar said the lease sale reflects the Obama administration's efforts to encourage environmentally responsible energy development to ease the nation's reliance on imported oil.
Eric Myers, of Audubon Alaska, considered BLM's plan "quite reasonable," saying the agency provided additional areas for drilling while protecting special wildlife habitat.
But Brendan Cummings, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the reserve is the country's largest and most intact unprotected wilderness area, and protecting Teshekpuk Lake isn't enough.
"They're not going to cut out its heart, but they're still cutting off an arm and a leg," he said.
Cummings said politicians unwilling to allow leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the east are willing to sacrifice the petroleum reserve, where, he said, caribou, wolves and waterfowl also need protection. Just having a sale, he said, defeats the original purpose of setting aside the land, which was to provide a reserve of petroleum resources as an emergency supply in time of war or other crisis.
"This lease sale is yet another symptom of a flawed energy policy where irreplaceable wildlands are sacrificed for a short-term oil fix," Cummings said.