ANCHORAGE, Alaska — U.S. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar held a press conference in Anchorage today (Monday)-- and immediately stirred up controversy on the always-touchy subject of federal dominion when it comes to drilling in the state.
Salazar said he would like to place 11 million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska off-limits to oil drillers. The Department of Interior believes that -- despite the restrictions Salazar wants to place on drilling -- half a billion barrels would still be available to drillers on the land he's willing to lease. Interior believes there are another 9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Moments after the Secretary's announcement, environmentalists -- and some North Slope residents -- expressed cautious optimism that Salazar was trying to reach a careful balance between preserving the largest unprotected wilderness in the United States, and going ahead with responsible oil development.
Others did not see it that way.
Through a spokesperson, Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski said that putting half of the NPR-A off-limits to drillers was a bad idea.
"They've taken 11 million acres off the table -- from a 25.5 million acre petroleum reserve," fumed Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon.
"It's a major concern for Alaskans," Dillon went on to say. What they're doing is, they're shutting down half of the NPR-A -- and endangering future development in the Chukchi and the Beaufort Seas."
What Dillon was referring to was a plan by Shell Oil to explore the arctic waters -- off Alaska's coasts -- for oil this summer.
If large amounts of oil are discovered in the Chukchi -- and it's believed that they will be -- then a 400 mile pipeline would have to be built across the NPR-A to link that oil with the Trans Alaska Pipeline.
Dillon is concerned that because the Salazar proposal puts so much of the NPR-A off limits to drilling, it could inhibit the proposed pipeline. Salazar says provisions for such a pipeline will be written into his plan, but not everyone is convinced.
Senator Mark Begich (D-Alaska) , through a press release said he's also concerned that Salazar's plan could interfere with the route of a future pipeline. He says the Interior plan raises questions that he wants answered.
Cautiously optimistic were environmentalists, who said that Salazar seemed to be making a sincere attempt to balance conflicting interests.
(SALAZAR STRINGOUT 2, WENDY LOYA/WILDERNESS SOCIETY TC 15:55) "High resources are protected," said Wendy Loya of The Wilderness Society. Then, Loya continued, "And I would imagine that by later this fall or winter we'll see the final plan come out."
Loya is concerned because the NPR-A is -- as National Geographic describes it, "the wildest part of the wildest state." In a 2006 article called "Fall of the Wild" Geographic Senior Writer Ken Bourne, Jr. went on to say that NPR-A "contains the largest piece of unprotected wilderness in the nation, along with half a million caribou, hundreds of grizzlies and in summer more waterfowl, raptors and shore birds than anyone can count."
It's Salazar's job to see that that wilderness is both developed and protected.
But it's not just the environmentalists who worry about proper development of NPR-A. So do Alaska natives -- such as the 5000 Inupiat who live in and around the reserve.