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WASHINGTON - The Bush administration intends to open 8.8 million acres of Alaska's North Slope to oil and gas development, including areas considered environmentally sensitive.
The Interior Department was to announce the oil and gas leasing plan today, as the Senate takes a critical vote on a massive energy bill. President Bush endorses the bill, but it denies him his top energy priority, opening an Alaskan wildlife refuge to drilling.
None of the 8.8 million acres are in the wildlife refuge, but they do include some sensitive areas in Alaska that are important for the protection of migratory birds, whales and wildlife.
Geologists believe the 22.5 million acres in the government's National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska may contain 6 billion to 13 billion barrels of oil. But it is widely scattered and costlier to develop than in the wildlife refuge.
Henri Bisson, the Alaska director for the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management, said the leasing plan would "maximize the production of oil and gas resources in an environmentally safe manner while protecting the important biological, subsistence and cultural values also found in this area."
Bisson, in a statement obtained Thursday, said he expects BLM to hold a lease sale for selected tracts next June. The Clinton administration had opened much of the eastern section of the reserve to oil and gas exploration in 1998, but under tight restrictions with some areas fenced off.
Environmentalists said the plan, based on a proposal in January, would jeopardize Arctic tundra, lakes and ponds that provide sanctuary for wildlife and migratory birds but were set aside in the 1920s for potential energy development.
Charles Clusen, director of the Alaska lands project for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the leasing plan rewards friends of the Bush administration in the oil and gas industry.
"Instead of being a wilderness area," he said Thursday, "it will be an industrial zone subdivided by roads, pipelines, associated facilities, drill pads, maintenance facilities, etc., etc."
The Interior Department described its action as a compromise that will offer large areas for drilling, while cordoning off some sensitive lands because of environmental concerns.
The land is west of Prudhoe Bay, long-used oil fields on Alaska's North Slope, and also west of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's 1.5 million-acre coastal plain that Bush and Republicans in Congress fought unsuccessfully to open. The coastal plan is believed to contain 3.2 billion to 11.5 billion barrels of oil.
Under the leasing plan, BLM would:
Defer leasing on about 1.5 million acres of the reserve for the next 10 years to see if it needs more environmental studies.
Protect from development another 1.5 million acres along the coast and in deep-water lakes and key rivers.
Recommend creating a 102,000-acre Kasegaluk Lagoon Special Area, a particularly sensitive area in the far western part of the reserve, that would be fenced off from leasing. It is known as home of beluga whales, spotted seals and the black brandt, a migratory wild goose.
Designate special study areas for the black brandt and caribou.
Conduct habitat studies for eiders, a bird whose existence is imperiled, and yellow-billed loons.
Set restrictions to minimize loss of foraging habitat for raptors.