Energy Security vs. Environment in Alaska

Befiting a state dominated more by wild lands than humankind has been home to some of the fiercest political battles pitting energy interests against environmental concerns.

While the Marcellus Shale in New York and Pennsylvania and the Bakken Shale in North Dakota are trigger points in the world of fossil-fuel extraction these days, Alaska has been the lodestar for oil and gas development in the United States for the last half-century. And as befits a state dominated more by wild lands than humankind, it has been home to some of the fiercest political battles pitting energy interests against environmental concerns.

There is no difference this time around; the Obama administration and the Romney campaign have taken opposite sides on the issue of opening up a coastal portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. The Obama administration intends to keep it closed; Mitt Romney wants to open it.

But on other Alaska-based energy questions, the Obama administration has not taken a pure pro-environment position. For instance, it has backed Shell’s efforts to enter previously untouched Arctic waters to drill. At the same time, it has imposed some new restrictions on onshore drilling. As my colleagues John Broder and Clifford Krauss noted in their examination of the administration’s Alaskan energy decisions, President Obama “continues his efforts to balance business and environmental interests, seemingly project by project.”

That balancing act was in evidence on Monday when the Interior Department released its proposal for new limits on drilling in the northwestern chunk of the state, in an area set aside in 1923 by the Harding administration and now known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

It expanded existing protections around Teshekpuk Lake and the Colville River, both important sites for hundreds of thousands of migrating birds and caribou. But the department also opened up 11.8 million acres of the region — the largest single chunk of land in the federal government’s larder — to oil and gas drilling.

The land available for leasing contains an estimated 549 million barrels of economically recoverable oil and about 8.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, the department said in a press release.

Mainstream environmental groups like the National Audubon Society and the Pew Environment Group applauded the expansion of protections. Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, denounced it as “the most restrictive management plan possible.”

While the struggles over the petroleum resources in the N.P.R.-A., a haven for hundreds of thousands of migrating birds and caribou herds, are less well known than those over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, they present the same basic choice as other issues involving the extraction and transportation of oil and natural gas: what environmental cost is worth the potential gains in energy security?

The question is particularly acute in Alaska, whose southern shoreline, wildlife and local economy were devastated by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 and whose oil production from existing fields, which underwrites much of the state’s economy, has been declining for two decades.

What basic considerations — economic, environmental and climate-related — should the administration be taking into account in making these decisions in Alaska and other areas of the country with rich energy potential? How would you weight them?