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Monday, February 6, 2006 - Page updated at 11:21 AM


Bush administration opens region around Teshekpuk Lake to oil drilling

Seattle Times staff reporter

A vast, roadless region of Arctic Alaska, an important caribou and bird-nesting area that also may hold some of the nation's richest oil deposits, was opened to oil drilling Wednesday over the bitter objections of environmentalists.

The Bush administration said that special rules would be enough to protect the sensitive landscape as it reversed a Reagan-era decision to keep hundreds of thousands of acres around Teshekpuk Lake, on Alaska's North Slope, off-limits to oil.

The decision moves Alaska's oil frontier into an area biologists consider as ecologically significant as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), 150 miles to the east. In doing so, it brings to a head one of the most contentious — yet lesser-known — oil-development battles in the country.

"This is one of the most crucial biological reserves in the world, and there's just no legitimate reason to open it," said Deborah Williams, a well-known environmentalist in Anchorage, Alaska. Given that the administration already opened 9 million new acres nearby to oil exploration, "it's really inexcusable."

Supporters of the oil industry, however, argue that the area holds more than 2 billion barrels of oil.

"We've been left out of too much of the area with the most potential," said Tadd Owens, executive director of the Resource Development Council of Alaska, a business association. "Given our energy deficit, we have to be willing to look more within our borders."

While remaining relatively unheard of in the lower 48 states, the two-year fight over drilling outside Teshekpuk Lake has pitted President Bush against some of the very people who support him on drilling in ANWR — the North Slope's Inupiat villagers. The fight has caused some of them to re-evaluate their relationship with oil.

The wetlands around the 315-square-mile lake are popular Inupiat hunting and fishing grounds and are widely considered among the most vital in the Arctic for molting geese.

The battle over the lake was featured last week as part of a two-day series in The Seattle Times, "Arctic Out of Balance," about changes sweeping across Arctic Alaska.

Teshekpuk Lake was among 23.5 million acres that President Harding set aside 80 years ago specifically for oil exploration, an area now known as the National Petroleum Reserve. In the 1980s, Reagan's Interior Secretary, James Watt, protected the area around the lake from development, arguing it was too sensitive.

As oil development marched across Alaska in the 1990s, the Clinton administration agreed to open the reserve to exploration but stay away from Teshekpuk.

The Bush administration went further. It proposed adding the hundreds of thousands of acres around Teshekpuk Lake to lands that could be leased to oil companies. That raised concerns among government biologists and infuriated even the Inupiat villagers who depend on oil for their income.

So the administration tinkered with the plan for a year before unveiling its final version Wednesday. The new plan includes tens of thousands of extra acres where structures will be banned to protect geese and caribou. And the administration has agreed to do more bird studies before allowing development.

"We have done all we can to facilitate protection and oil and gas [exploration]," said Susan Childs, the Bureau of Land Management official who oversaw planning for Teshekpuk Lake.

Reaction to the decision was swift.

"We're likely to have some problems with it," said Tom Lohman, attorney for the North Slope Borough.

Eleanor Huffines of the Wilderness Society complained that regardless of the administration's added protections, the government is still opening the entire area and "we have every indication that once in place, oil-industry infrastructure grows, expands and sprawls across everything."

Judy Brady of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association said the industry could move toward drilling soon.

"Companies won't leave an area with that much potential just sitting there," she said.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company




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