Arctic oil search moves to new turf, new controversies
One is a long-protected portion of Arctic Alaska where a vast freshwater lake is edged by marshes that draw migrating birds from as far as Mexico and Russia. The other is a national wildlife refuge straddling the Arctic Circle, a watery haven for moose, furry mammals, and waterfowl.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But underneath both lie what may be some of the largest untapped pools of onshore oil and natural gas in the US. As a result, the two sites represent one of the next crucial frontiers in the nation's expanding energy wars.
In many respects, the fight quietly emerging over the two areas - Teshekpuk Lake and the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge - parallels the protracted battle over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). It is energy versus the environment, with elements of caribou and molting birds and native American culture mixed in.
But the latest fight also has its own dimensions that hold important practical and symbolic implications for a nation struggling to find the right balance between conservation and hydrocarbons.
Though long eyed by development interests, the Teshekpuk and Yukon sites are attracting new attention from the Bush administration and energy companies as oil prices spike and new technology makes it more economical to drill in remote areas.
Teshekpuk, meaning "big enclosed coastal water," is Alaska's third-largest lake. It and its nearby wetlands draw huge flocks of birds each summer, there to shed their feathers and fatten up. Most notable are the Pacific black brant: Nearly 30 percent of the geese head to Teshekpuk for their annual molt.
"There is nowhere else in the circumpolar Arctic that attracts so many molting geese," says Stan Senner, executive director of Audubon Alaska.
Drilling opponents point to a reverence for the region that crosses political bounds: Even James Watt, President Reagan's famously pro-development Interior secretary, deemed it too sensitive to drill. In 1998, the Clinton administration opened most of the northeast corner of the National Petroleum Reserve, of which Teshekpuk is a part, to oil leasing. But it kept the lake itself off limits.
Now, however, concern about rising prices and dependence on foreign crude is forcing a new look at the area. "The country needs access to its oil and gas resources, and this area is a petroleum reserve," Henri Bisson, Alaska state director for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), said in a speech announcing the Bush administration's plans to overturn Clinton-era rules that closed Teshekpuk Lake and its shores to oil leasing.
The BLM announced its plan for leasing the area in February, but a final decision has not been made. Objections from the natives on the North Slope and in southwestern Alaska - a nesting site for geese that molt at Teshekpuk - are prompting some changes, Mr. Bisson said.
The Barrow Arch, the rich geologic structure that has fed all of the producing oil fields on Alaska's North Slope, runs right under the Teshekpuk area. Of the 2 billion recoverable barrels believed to lie under the northeastern section of the National Petroleum Reserve, 1.4 billion are under Teshekpuk Lake and the lands around it, according to government estimates. Aside from ANWR's coastal plain, it may be the biggest source of oil on federal lands anywhere in the nation.
It is oil that should be drilled, industry says. "If you're going to be stymied doing responsible exploration and production activities in a petroleum reserve, that sends a pretty chilling message to the oil and gas industry in the United States," says Tadd Owens, executive director of the Resource Development Council for Alaska.
But to George Ahmaogak, mayor of the North Slope Borough (a county-like jurisdiction the size of Michigan), Teshekpuk Lake is more deserving of protection than the ANWR coastal plain. He, in fact, supports drilling in ANWR for its potential economic payoff to his fellow Inupiat. But he recognizes the irony of the names. "If you live in the Lower 48 and you compare those two names," he said in an Anchorage speech, "well, one of them is a 'wildlife refuge' and the other is a 'petroleum reserve.' Which one is going to get your environmental juices flowing?"