ANCHORAGE - A Bush administration plan to open almost 9 million acres to oil and gas development in Alaska is ill-conceived and misleading, threatening sensitive havens for wildlife and migratory birds, environmentalists said Friday.
"It's never enough for the Bush administration," said Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League. "They won't be happy until every acre in America's Arctic is a wasteland filled with oil, pipelines and roads."
The Interior Department's oil and gas leasing plan targets 8.8 million acres at the northwest corner of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska on the North Slope. Officials with the agency's Bureau of Land Management said restrictions would "protect water quality, vegetation, wetlands, fish and wildlife habitat, subsistence uses and scenic/recreational values."
State and oil industry officials hailed the plan to expand development of the 22.5-million acre reserve. A final decision is expected in late December.
"It fits in with what the governor would like to do, develop our oil and gas resources," said John Manly, a spokesman for Gov. Frank Murkowski. "The administration is pleased that the BLM is moving forward with this program. After all, it is a petroleum reserve."
But critics said the plan ignores thousands of Americans and dozens of scientists who spoke during a public-comment period, urging a balance between development and conservation of untouched wilderness.
Much of the northeastern section already is open to oil and gas exploration but under tight restrictions with some areas fenced off.
The entire reserve is believed to contain between 6 billion and 13 billion barrels of oil. The oil, spread over a wide area, would be costly to recover and amount to no more than nine months of the nation's fuel supply, said Chuck Clusen, director of the Alaska lands project for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"The U.S. has only 3 percent of the world oil reserves. There's no way we can drill our way to independence," Clusen said. "We need to wean ourselves off oil, not destroy our natural heritage."
The plan calls for deferred leasing on about 1.5 million acres near the Inupiat Eskimo village of Wainwright for a decade to see if more environmental studies are needed. It also designates study areas for caribou and birds, and protects another 1.5 million acres along the coast and some lakes and rivers.
Such measures are misleading, environmentalists said.
"They are opening this area 100 percent," said Eleanor Huffines, Alaska regional director for The Wilderness Society. "The deferrals are just temporary. It's a matter of time."
In Wainwright, many of the 550 residents have mixed feelings about the issue, said Lucille Mayer, who has lived in the coastal village most of her 47 years. Mayer said concerns were voiced at public meetings earlier this year.
Although exploration could create jobs, locals worry about the impact on areas where they hunt for caribou, walrus, whales, fish and geese. The region also is rich in berries and medicinal plants.
"One of our biggest fears is losing our traditional subsistence hunting and gathering areas," Mayer said.
There's no reason development and subsistence can't co-exist, said Mark Hanley, a spokesman for Anadarko Petroleum Corp., a ConocoPhillips partner in exploration and potential development on the eastern section of the reserve.
"People who criticize need to remember that there are many, many steps along the way," Hanley said. "Eliminating subsistence activities is not the goal. People are still hunting around current facilities in the North Slope."