End-Around On Arctic Drilling

Area 1002, a section inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, proposed to be used for oil exploration by the Bush administration, is shown in this undated file photo. (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge)
The Bush administration intends to open 8.8 million acres of Alaska's North Slope to oil and gas development, including areas considered environmentally sensitive.

The Interior Department was to announce the oil and gas leasing plan Friday, the day the Senate was taking a critical vote on a massive energy bill endorsed by President Bush but denying him his top energy priority: opening an Alaskan wildlife refuge to drilling.

None of the 8.8 million acres are in the wildlife refuge, but they do include some sensitive areas in Alaska that are important for the protection of migratory birds, whales and wildlife.

Geologists believe the 22.5 million acres in the government's National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska may contain 6 billion to 13 billion barrels of oil. But the oil deposits are widely scattered and costlier to develop than in the wildlife refuge.

Henri Bisson, the Alaska director for the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management, said the leasing plan would "maximize the production of oil and gas resources in an environmentally safe manner while protecting the important biological, subsistence and cultural values also found in this area."

Bisson, in a statement obtained Thursday by The Associated Press, said he expects BLM to hold a lease sale for selected tracts next June. The Clinton administration had opened much of the eastern section of the reserve to oil and gas exploration in 1998, but under tight restrictions with some areas fenced off.

Environmentalists said the plan, based on a proposal in January, would jeopardize Arctic tundra, lakes and ponds that provide sanctuary for wildlife and migratory birds but were set aside in the 1920s for potential energy development.

Charles Clusen, director of the Alaska lands project for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, said the leasing plan rewards friends of the Bush administration in the oil and gas industry.

"Instead of being a wilderness area," he said Thursday, "it will be an industrial zone subdivided by roads, pipelines, associated facilities, drill pads, maintenance facilities, etc., etc."

The Interior Department described its action as a compromise that will offer large areas for drilling, while cordoning off some sensitive lands because of environmental concerns.

The land is west of Prudhoe Bay's long-used oil fields on Alaska's North Slope, and also west of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's 1.5 million-acre coastal plain that Mr. Bush and Republicans in Congress fought unsuccessfully to open. The coastal plan is believed to contain 3.2 billion to 11.5 billion barrels of oil.

The New York Times reported in January that BLM was considering four proposals for how to use this section of the petroleum reserve — no exploration versus allowing drilling on half the land, 96 percent of the area, or all of it.

BLM appears to have picked something near the 96 percent plan. It will protect 1.5 million acres permanently, study whether exploration should be allowed on another 1.5 million acres, and make special provisions for habitat used by raptors, loons, caribou and other species.

In April, BLM announced it was reviewing how other parts of the reserve are used — specifically, whether a Clinton-era restriction on another 4.6 million acres should remain in place.

Expanding domestic supplies of oil has been a Bush administration priority. The 2001 energy task force headed by Vice President Dick Cheney recommended that the Energy Department "improve oil and gas exploration technology through continued partnership with public and private entities" and that the Interior Department "examine land status and lease stipulation impediments to federal oil and gas leasing, and review and modify those where opportunities exist."

It was unclear how word of the Interior Department move might affect the looming Senate vote on the energy bill. A group of Democrats and Republicans, for various reasons, are pushing to derail it with a Senate filibuster.

Both philosophical and geographic differences could interfere with final approval of the bill, which Mr. Bush has demanded be finished this year and considers one of his top domestic priorities.

It would be the first overhaul of U.S. energy policy in 11 years.

A growing number of Democrats, with at least six Republicans, criticized the legislation Thursday, claiming it is too costly, would dole out billions of dollars to special interests and hurt the environment.

The bill breezed through the House earlier this week, but ran up against opposition from senators who hoped to get 41 votes needed to block its passage.

Senate leaders scheduled a vote Friday on whether to cut off debate on the 1,148-page energy blueprint. If they succeed, opponents likely will fold their tents and agree to bring the issue up for a final congressional vote.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R.M., the bill's floor leader, said he's confident a majority of senators will pass the bill. But whether there are the 60 votes need to cut short debate was another matter, as senators on both sides hunted for support.

"This bill is teetering on the edge of survival right now," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

Many Democrats, with five Republicans from New England, vowed to block the bill because it would shield makers of MTBE, a gasoline additive contaminating water supplies, from product liability lawsuits and give the companies $2 billion over eight years to help them shift away from making the additive as it is phased out.

A provision to double the use or ethanol in gasoline, an economic boon to the Farm Belt states — drew opposition from senators on East and West coasts.

Others have questioned the bill's overall $31 billion price tag, including $25.7 billion in tax subsidies.