The Bush Administration's Unbalanced Plan to Drill in the Western Arctic

While there has been much attention paid to the ongoing battle in Congress over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Bush administration has been quietly leasing tracts in another wilderness area west of Prudhoe Bay on the north coast of Alaska. Like the Arctic Refuge, the 23.5-million-acre Western Arctic Reserve -- formally called the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska -- provides a haven for tens of thousands of caribou and tens of millions of shorebirds and waterfowl.

The Western Arctic Reserve contains America's largest single block of unprotected wilderness. From the mountains and river valleys of the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean, the Western Arctic Reserve includes coastal plain wetlands, rolling foothills and wild rivers. The expanse of wetlands represents globally important summer habitat for birds, such as yellow-billed loon, white fronted geese, threatened Steller's and spectacled eiders. Off its coast are the largest aggregations of beluga whales and spotted seals in northern Alaska. Likewise, it provides critical habitat for two caribou herds, the 450,000 Western Arctic herd and the 45,000 Teshekpuk Lake herd, as well as moose, grizzly bears, wolves and polar bears. The Inupiat Eskimo, who live in a number of villages in the Western Arctic Reserve, depend on the region's wildlife for subsistence, including food, clothing and shelter, and have a spiritual and cultural connection to the land.

Regardless, the Western Arctic Reserve has never been granted full federal protection because it was set aside in 1923 as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, a potential oil source for the U.S. Navy in the event of an emergency. It remained largely untouched through World War II and the 1970s' oil crisis, but the oil and gas industry has been able to muscle its way into the area in recent years, emergency or not. More than half of this largely pristine wilderness has been opened to leasing in the last six years. If the administration gets its way, the region could soon be covered with a network of gravel mines, roads, drill pads, pipelines and processing facilities that would destroy wildlife habitat for generations.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the entire reserve likely contains 3.7 billion barrels of oil of economically recoverable oil at $25 per barrel and 6.8 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil at $40 per barrel. Americans currently use 7.2 billion barrels of oil a year, and even with the current spike in oil prices, U.S. crude oil prices have averaged $24 a barrel over the last five years (see To produce 6.8 billion barrels of oil from the reserve, world oil prices would have to average $40 a barrel for a number of years. In any case, the technology exists today to increase average vehicle fuel economy standards to 40 miles per gallon. If automakers could meet that standard over the next decade, the United States would save at least seven times more oil than the Western Arctic Reserve is likely to produce.

Divvying Up the Western Arctic Reserve

Managed by the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) the Western Arctic Reserve is divided into three planning areas: northwest, northeast and south.

The Northwest Planning Area: In January, the Interior Department proposed oil and gas leasing in the 8.8-million-acre northwest planning area. NRDC and other conservation groups criticized the plan for failing to protect key areas from development and sued to block it. "Opening the Western Arctic Reserve is yet another flagrant example of this administration liquidating our natural heritage to benefit its friends in the oil and gas industry," said Chuck Clusen, director of NRDC's Alaska Project. "It refuses to permanently protect even a single acre of the Western Arctic Reserve's most critical wildlife habitat." (For more information, see a January 2004 NRDC press release at

In June, the BLM leased approximately 1.5 million acres, mostly around Dease Inlet, a critical area for waterfowl, caribou and polar bears. The conservationists' lawsuit halts surface exploration until there is a court ruling. Another fragile wildlife area threatened by oil and gas leasing in the area is Kasegaluk Lagoon, but it is not slated for leasing until 2014. It provides habitat for the broadest range of birds of any coastal lagoon system in the Alaska arctic as well as critical habitat for beluga whales, spotted seals and polar bears. Musk oxen and arctic peregrine falcons also are threatened by oil development in the northwest planning area.

The Northeast Planning Area: In 1998, the BLM made 87 percent of the 4.6-million-acre northeast planning area available for oil and gas leasing, and about 1.3 million acres have been leased so far. To protect wildlife, nearly 590,000 acres around Teshekpuk Lake was placed off limits, and surface access was restricted on another 270,000 acres. Much of the 13 percent that remained off limits is critical goose molting habitat and caribou calving and insect relief habitat around Teshekpuk Lake.

A new BLM proposal would remove many of these protections around the lake, opening an additional 389,000 acres to oil and gas leasing. If the proposal is approved, only 4 percent of the planning area would be protected from development. The public comment period on this proposal ends on August 23.

Scientists and conservationists are particularly concerned about the impact oil development would have on the area around Teshekpuk Lake, a critical area for molting geese and nesting birds, including the Pacific Flyway brant, yellow-billed loons and the threatened spectacled eider. Some 45,000 caribou use the area as a birthing ground. And those caribou are essential for subsistence hunters such as the Inupiat Eskimo. Subsistence hunters from Nuiqsut say that nearby oil development has made it necessary for them to travel 30 miles or more to find caribou that used to pass right by their village.

The Southern Planning Area: The planning process for leasing the Western Arctic Reserve's southern planning area is slated to begin later this year. This area is mostly mountainous highlands and provides the calving area in the Utukok uplands for the 450,000 Western Arctic caribou herd.

Other Threats to the Western Arctic Reserve

Alpine Oil Field Expansion: Just east of the Western Arctic Reserve, the Alpine oil field in the Colville River delta was discovered in 1994; production began in 2000. The Bush administration cites Alpine field exploration and development as an example of environmentally responsible development that uses directional drilling and ice roads instead of permanent roads and bridges. However, the administration is poised to approve a ConocoPhillips proposal to build as many as 25 miles of permanent roads, airstrips, drilling pads, and a bridge across the Nigliq Channel. This plan would disrupt caribou calving and goose molting near Teshekpuk Lake and potentially threaten the endangered bowhead whale, which migrates every spring past the proposed project area. In addition, the Inupiat use this area for hunting and fishing, activities that would be disturbed by new oil development.

Colville River Road to the Village of Nuiqsut: The state of Alaska plans to build an 18-mile road that would connect North Slope oil industry facilities with the village of Nuiqsut along the Colville River on the edge of the Western Arctic Reserve, providing more direct access to the Western Arctic oil fields. The road would lower freight and fuel costs and provide year-round access to the Deadhorse airport. It also would lower oil industry operating costs.

Those benefits for industry are offset by a number of significant problems the road would cause. The road, for example, would include the first bridge over the Colville River, which local residents fear would harm fish harvests and the overall flow of the river. The road also likely would disturb traditional caribou migration patterns and fragment moose habitat.

"It makes no sense to industrialize this incomparable wilderness area when there's less than a year's worth of economically recoverable oil in the entire Western Arctic Reserve," said Clusen. "The United States has only 3 percent of the world's proven oil reserves and we use 25 percent of the world's produced oil. We can't drill our way to oil independence. We have to wean ourselves off oil."