Environmental sleight of hand in the Arctic?

AP Photo/US Fish and Wildlife Service/FILE
Caribou graze inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.

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.

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.

So far, so good. Speaking to Reuters, Stan Senner, executive director of Audubon Alaska, called the decision a "win." "I think they've responded to public interest in seeing that the area's protected, and it gives people who care about the place time to work on a permanent solution," he said.

But it turns out that Mr. Senner had deep reservations about the decision, which immediately reduced the protected area to 81 percent of the original, and in 10 years will reduce it to 28 percent. Speaking to Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Joel Connelly, Mr. Senner said that he saw some "sleight of hand" in the announcement.

"Basically, BLM has 'opened' the entire northeast National Petroleum Reserve – except the bed of Teshekpuk Lake – to oil and gas leasing, but then has 'deferred' leasing for 10 years on the wetlands north and east of the lake," Senner explained.
"The agency wants to move ahead with another lease sale in the fall, but they don't want it to get bogged down in the controversy of trying to lease formerly closed areas around the lake."

As Mr. Connelly sees it, "The Bush administration simply gave back protection that it had already lifted."

A similar slipperiness was on display last Wednesday, when Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced that he would be listing polar bears as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act – the first species to be listed due to global warming. But along with the ruling, he issued a special order asserting that the ESA cannot be used to address climate change. Additionally, he invoked a "4(d) rule," allowing oil and gas companies to continue to drill in the bears' habitats.

An editorial by the Houston Chronicle characterized the decision as one of the Bush administration's "final gifts for their industry buddies".

Kempthorne, an avowed critic of the Endangered Species Act, described the listing of the bears as dictated by the "inflexible" law. He then demonstrated his own political flexibility by announcing a series of administrative measures. The rule changes will give oil and gas companies unfettered access to drill in the bears' Arctic backyard while providing no real protection to the animals, whose ice floe hunting grounds are literally melting under their paws.

These decisions by the Interior Department indicate that the Bush administration is concerned about its environmental image (take the bizarre 2007 memo concerning the conditions under which government scientists can mention polar bears). That's a long way from Bush's first few months in office, when he openly rejected the Kyoto Protocol and withdrew standards for arsenic in drinking water. These days, the president, along with most national political figures, is at least paying lip-service to the environment. But, as always, the devil is in the details.

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