Environmental sleight of hand in the Arctic?
Environmentalists have hailed recent announcements by the US Interior Department that purport to protect wildlife, but both of these announcements carry with them asterisks that should give greens pause.Skip to next paragraph
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On Friday, the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management announced that some 340 square miles of ecologically sensitive land in the northeast section of Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve will be off limits to drilling.
In a reversal of its earlier policy, the BLM opted not to open 219,000 acres of Teshekpuk Lake and its islands to oil and gas leasing, and to defer for 10 years leasing on an additional 430,000 acres north and east of the Arctic coastal lake.
It sounds like a victory for environmentalists, until you remember that, a few years ago, some 800,000 acres around the lake were off limits.
At stake is hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of oil. Geologists estimate that the Teshekpuk Lake region, which lies roughly 175 miles west of the hotly contested Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, holds 2.8 billion barrels of oil, with 800 million in the deferral area. (The world consumes roughly 30 billion barrels of oil per year, with the US accounting for about one-quarter of that consumption.)
But the region is also one of the most ecologically valuable in the country. Each year, up to 60,000 geese of various species gather during the summer, where they shed the feathers on their wings and wait for them to regrow. The area is also home to 45,000 caribou, as well as many grizzlies, polar bears, and gray wolves.
The pristine area has long been respected by previous administrations. Even President Reagan's Interior Secretary, James Watt, who advocates shooting environmentalists when legal methods fail to stop them, opted to protect 200,000 acres of the goose-molting area, a protection that was maintained by his three successors under Reagan and Bush I. In 1999, President Clinton's Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbitt, expanded that region to 800,000 acres and opened the remaining portion of the northeast section of the petroleum reserve – 87 percent – to drilling.
Babbitt's protections lasted until January 2006, when the Interior Department scrapped them. A coalition of environmentalists and indigenous groups sued the government. In September of that year, a federal judge in Alaska blocked the drilling, ruling that the government had failed to conduct a sufficiently thorough study of the environmental impacts. At first blush, it looks as though the government has finally backed down, with Friday's announcement.