* Vast area divided between energy development, conservation
* Reserve home to huge caribou herds, migratory birds
* Republican senator says plan locks up gas reserves
By Ros Krasny
WASHINGTON, Dec 19 The U.S. federal government
on Wednesday announced a plan to manage energy drilling on part
of Alaska's North Slope, with the 23-million-acre National
Petroleum Reserve to be divided between areas available for oil
and gas leases and those that are protected from development.
The announcement by U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar
followed the completion of an environmental impact study, which
recommended development of areas that contain about 72 percent
of the estimated "economically recoverable" oil in the reserve.
The move drew criticism from Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who
said the Obama administration had not gone far enough to open up
oil and natural gas resources in the area.
Salazar said the plan as conceived would allow for the
potential construction of pipelines carrying oil or gas from
operations in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas through the NPR
region, also known as the Western Arctic Reserve.
The "balanced approach" would help protect "significant
caribou herds, migratory bird habitat and sensitive coastal
resources that are critically important to the culture and
subsistence lifestyle of Alaska Natives," Salazar said.
The administration has authorized 177 oil and gas leases in
the reserve since May 2011, covering some 1.4 million acres. So
far only exploratory drilling has occurred.
Under Wednesday's blueprint 11.8 million acres would be open
for development, which are estimated to hold 549 million barrels
of economically recoverable oil and 8.7 trillion cubic feet of
economically recoverable natural gas.
Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy
Committee, takes the view that the reserve's legal purpose is to
provide petroleum to the United States to ensure the nation's
The administration's plan "locks up 83.5 percent of the
likely natural gas in the reserve. That is totally
unacceptable," she said.
The reserve is the largest single tract of public land in
the country, roughly the size of Indiana, and is managed by the
Bureau of Land Management.
Several environmentalists said they liked the plan, which
protects the area around the North Slope's biggest lake.
"This is a nice holiday present for America's waterfowl
hunters and bird watchers," said Adam Kolton, executive director
of the National Wildlife Federation's national advocacy center,
who praised the administration's "balanced approach."
But Brendan Cummings, a senior attorney for the Center for
Biological Diversity, decried the decision as "unfortunate".
"The Obama administration seems set on turning most
of America's Arctic into a sacrifice zone for the benefit of oil
companies," he said in an email.