WASHINGTON -- The Interior Department is set to open a vast area of environmentally sensitive wetlands in Alaska to oil drilling, but opponents point to corroding pipelines to the east at Prudhoe Bay as a reason to keep the area off-limits.
The tens of thousands of acres in and around Lake Teshekpuk on Alaska's North Slope are part of the oil-rich Barrow Arch, which includes the Prudhoe Bay fields that have kept oil flowing for decades.
The lease sale, opposed by environmentalists and some members of Congress, is occurring as federal regulators and a House committee investigate inspection and maintenance programs of
Government geologists contend that at least 2 billion barrels of oil and huge amounts of natural gas lie beneath the coastal lagoons, deltas, and sedge grass meadows -- an area where caribou give birth and thousands of geese migrate each summer. Within days, the Interior Department will open tracts in the area for leasing, with the winning bids to be announced in September.
The lake and its surrounding wetlands are within the federal National Petroleum ReserveAlaska 22 million acres set aside in 1923 by the federal government for its oil and gas resources. Unlike the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge farther to the east, the reserve area is acknowledged by all sides to be an area for energy development. But environmentalists argue that parts of it, especially the region around Lake Teshekpuk, should be excluded from the lease sales.
They contend that the risks to the environment were reinforced by the recent disclosure of shoddy maintenance, inadequate inspections, and corroded pipes that led to the partial shutdown of North Slope oil production. BP Alaska has said it is replacing two-thirds of its 22-mile Prudhoe Bay feeder pipeline system because of corrosion. The company has acknowledged it was wrong to rely on ultrasonic tests to monitor the pipes and not internal tests using ``smart pig" technology, while also allowing a buildup of sludge in the pipes.
But the oil industry said that it spends tens of millions of dollars for environmental protection on the North Slope and that with modern technology, it can explore and develop oil fields in sensitive areas without risk to wildlife and the environment.
``Oil is inherently a dirty business, and there are some places where it should not be OK to go," countered Aurah Landau of the Alaska Coalition, an environmental advocacy group. She said that BP's pipeline corrosion and inspection and maintenance lapses are not an aberration and that there are frequent oil spills on the North Slope.
Recently, 19 senators and 10 House members urged Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to reconsider offering leases in the Lake Teshekpuk area.
``Industry already has access to 87 percent of the northeast area of the reserve, and providing them access to the remainder jeopardizes caribou and waterfowl populations and subsistence resources in one of the most important wetland complexes in the Arctic," the House letter said.
The Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management said that in its upcoming lease offering it will limit the surface areas within the nearly 500,000 acres to protect areas where geese molt and caribou give birth. The restrictions apply to roads and drilling pads, but not to elevated 30-inch pipelines.
It is just such pipes that are the focus of BP Alaska's Prudhoe Bay problems, including a spill of 270,000 gallons of oil in March and another spill discovered recently .
Edward Bovy, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management, said that the agency's restrictions on surface activity are aimed to protect the environment but that pipeline safety and integrity ``are separate issues" and do not affect leasing decisions.