New Alaska drilling bill undercuts decades of cooperative conservation

Jun 16, 2011

A bill from Rep. Doc Hastings (Wash.) would force unnecessary and costly development in the Bureau of Land Management’s National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska (NPRA) for little benefit to the American people. In this largely untouched area in the north-west Arctic region of Alaska, also known as the Western Arctic Reserve, previous federal legislation recognized multiple uses of the region, including conservation, something Hastings' bill fails to do.  NPRA’s 23 million acres provide essential habitat for caribou, breeding birds from all continents, polar bears, grizzly bears, and other species.

Oil companies have been conducting exploratory drilling in the NPRA for years, but no production to date.  In 2010, the US Geological Survey projected only approximately 10% of the oil in NPRA compared to its 2002 estimate.

Hastings’ bill would mandate unnecessary roads and pipelines to crisscross the Reserve, threatening Special Areas like the critically important Teshekpuk Lake region.  Teshekpuk Lake has been recognized for its wildlife values by administrations of both parties going back to Jimmy Carter.

“Presidents from both parties have understood that within the Reserve, there are areas too ecologically important to drill,” said The Wilderness Society’s Alaska Regional Director Nicole Whittington-Evans.  “Fragmenting the Reserve is a lose-lose proposition – it won’t provide much oil for Americans and it will destroy essential habitat for birds and wildlife.”

Under the Hastings bill, the Department of the Interior (DOI) would have to plan for road and pipeline rights-of-way across much of the Reserve, potentially cutting off caribou migration routes and breeding areas and fragmenting habitat, without regard to the impacts that roads and pipelines would have.  The bill also would impose artificially-short deadlines for DOI to approve drilling permits, threatening proper consideration of environmental impacts for the sake of unhindered drilling.

“Given the oil industry’s history of accidents, spills, and broken promises when it comes to safety and environmental impacts, properly studying drilling and transportation plans – and rejecting those plans when appropriate - rather than rushing them through is the right course of action,” said Whittington-Evans.  “Though the bill has a passing reference to environmental responsibility, the essence of the bill is to ensure that no part of the Reserve is fully protected for wildlife.”

“The conservation community supports a balanced approach to development in NPRA, and Hastings’ bill eliminates that balance,” added Whittington-Evans.