Oil Rigs With Minimal Impact on Alaskan Lands Promised

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, January 25, 2005 (ENS) Ė More of the Alaskan Arctic is about to be opened to oil and gas exploration. The northeast corner of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska has been protected for wildlife, birds and native subsistence hunting since the Reagan administration, but now the oil beneath the frozen land is needed and leasing will proceed, the top Bureau of Land Management (BLM) official in Alaska told a state business development group in Anchorage.

"But this is going to remain controversial," BLM Alaska State Director Henri Bisson told the Resource Development Council on Thursday. "I have been told flat out that we are going to be sued and to expect an all out fight to the finish to keep this from happening."


Teshekpuk Lake shelters large numbers of birds and animals, a network of coastal lagoons, deep water lakes, wet sedge grass meadows and river deltas of the Teshekpuk Lake area, unsurpassed in the Reserve. (Photo courtesy Northern Alaska Environmental Center)
Bisson said government geologists estimate there could be more than two billion barrels of economically recoverable oil and 3.5 trillion cubic feet of gas. "The country needs access to its oil and gas resources and this area is a petroleum reserve!" he said.

Bisson said the oil and gas could be extracted during the winter months with "minimal impact" on the environment. He said that in just a few days, his office would release a final amended Plan and Environmental Impact Statement.

He said the BLM proposal defers leasing of Teshekpuk Lake itself - about 211,000 acres. "The Lake has sensitive fisheries and wildlife values, is important to North Slope residents for subsistence and cultural reasons and would be very challenging both economically and technically to explore and develop at this time," Bisson told the developers.

Instead, Bisson proposes that the area north of Teshekpuk Lake would be divided into seven large lease tracts ranging in size from approximately 46,000 to 59,000 acres. Previous high potential lease tracts in the Petroleum Reserve have been 5,000 acres in size.


East Teshekpuk Test Well No.1 well head with the eastern portion of Lake Teshekpuk in the background (Photo courtesy Alaska BLM)
"This is a significant change from past leasing," he said, "but would allow successful lessees flexibility to find and appropriately develop oil resources using directional drilling methods, with minimal impact on wildlife resources." Directional drilling allows horizontal exploration under the land surface or under bodies of water.

Within the seven large lease tracts, Bisson says the BLM proposes to reserve three areas for winter exploration only with no permanent surface installations allowed.

The three sensitive areas cover 217,000 acres north, east and southeast of Teshekpuk Lake that are key habitat for molting geese and other waterfowl and for caribou migration, calving and insect relief.

"Basically, itís a limit on new graveled acreage," Bisson said. He estimates that 300 acres of gravel pads will be enough for production, satellite facilities and in-field transportation.

"In reality, we expect only one production facility will be located north of the lake and shared by lessees," said Bisson. "The remaining gravel will be used for satellites. There will be strict aircraft and human activity restrictions at certain times of the year, when moulting geese are present."

He says that the oil and gas industry has demonstrated, and BLM's own studies confirm, that winter exploration with ice roads and low-pressure tired vehicles can be done safely without unduly harming the vegetation. Bisson said winter exploration results in minimal impact to the wildlife resources that live in this area.


Arctic fox, Alopex lagopus, lives in the treeless coastal areas of Alaska from the Aleutian Islands north to Point Barrow, and east and west of the Canadian border. (Photo courtesy Alaska BLM)
A coalition of conservation groups, both Alaskan and those based farther south, caution that any oil development in and around Teshekpuk Lake would harm the birds and wild animals that have lived there for centuries.

"For sheer magnitude of wildlife and wetlands, the area around Teshekpuk Lake - Inupiat for the largest lake of all - including Dease Inlet and Meade River to the wet, is globally unique."

"Part of a vast network of coastal lagoons, deep water lakes, wet sedge grass meadows, and braided streams, the region harbors nearly one in four of the world's population of a small goose known as the Pacific black brant," the coalition writes. "Brants flock to the area's low-lying lakes and lush vegetation for critical molting and staging periods because the area is so free from disturbance."

The coalition points to studies on brant behavior conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and university biologists who have documented the susceptibility of brant to noise from helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

Steller's eiders and spectacled eiders - both threatened species - nest here, as do northern pintails, long-tailed ducks, king eiders, greater-white fronted geese, 60,000 molting Canada geese, tundra swans, Pacific, red-throated and rare yellow-billed loons, peregrine falcons, and numerous shorebirds.

Besides providing critical habitat for birds, the Teshekpuk Lake area is calving grounds for the 28,000 caribou of the Teshekpuk herd. Polar bears roam the coastal areas east of Barrow and north of Teshekpuk Lake from the summer to early winter.

People also live off the land. The Inupiat Eskimos have used the Teshekpuk Lake area for subsistence for thousands of years, the coalition of environmental groups says, vowing to fight the oil development.

"While not every acre qualifies for wilderness designation," the coalition writes, "these special places in the Western Arctic should be permanently protected for wildlife, native subsistence, and wilderness values ó values that should endure for generations to come."


A test well that was drilled inside an oil lake resulting from a natural oil seep in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (Photo courtesy BLM Alaska)
Bisson told the developers, "The environmental groups that organized a letter writing and email campaign donít want any additional acres in this area explored, any time of year. They donít want to discuss no surface occupancy restrictions or performance-based mitigation measures, or what they view as compromises. They feel that once things get going, the pressures to develop will mean all is lost as far as biological values are concerned and that a spider web of development will destroy the wildlife resources of the area," he said. "Based upon our analysis we strongly disagree!"

"Under this plan, industry may get access to some very significant oil and gas resources, but it is by no means a free-for-all," Bisson said. "There are strict sideboards attached, and they are spelled out up front. If industry finds what we think is there, we are confident that creativity and expertise can bring those resources to market in a manner that will preserve the sensitive biological values that are also present."

Assuming the secretary agrees with the BLM's proposal, Bisson expects to have a lease sale next July for the northeast portion of the Petroleum Reserve.

Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton is expected to approve the Alaska BLM's preferred alternative sometime within the next few days.

The National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska was set aside in 1923 to provide access to oil if needed. It is not the same area as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge which lies to the east and is the center of a separate storm of controversy over oil and gas development.