Waterfowl gain reprieve from plan to expand oil and gas development in Alaska

Waterfowl gain reprieve from plan to expand oil and gas development in Alaska

A preliminary decision by a federal judge may derail U.S. Department of the Interior plans to begin oil and gas leasing later this month in a vast wetland complex around the largest lake on Alaska's North Slope, reports the Wildlife Management Institute.

Located in the northeastern portion of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPRA), Teshekpuk Lake and the surrounding tundra and wetland habitats are used as a traditional molting site for 50,000 to 90,000 geese, including as much as 30 percent of the entire Pacific population of brant and as much as 35,000 of the mid-continent white-fronted geese that breed on the North Slope. Geese, pintails and tundra swans using this area move through the Central and Mississippi Flyways during autumn and provide highly valued opportunities for recreational hunting and wildlife viewing.

The 4.6 million acres of the northeast NPRA also are believed to have substantial natural gas supplies. A 1998 decision by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) made 87 percent of the area available to oil and gas exploration, but designated 857,859 acres around Teshekpuk Lake for protection. Nearly 600,000 acres of this designated Teshekpuk Lake Surface Protection Area were closed completely to oil and gas leasing, to safeguard caribou, geese and other wildlife resources.

In January, however, BLM reversed its earlier decision in order to make available for immediate leasing almost 4.4 million acres in northeastern NPRA, including the entire area around Teshekpuk Lake. Leasing of the subsurface land under the lake itself was deferred for 10 years. The new decision reversed a long-standing practice of keeping environmentally sensitive habitat in the Teshekpuk Lake area off-limits to oil and gas activities.

Because geese are vulnerable to disturbance by people and aircraft during their flightless, energy-demanding molt, conservationists and scientists are concerned that greater oil and gas development in the Teshekpuk Lake area may result in reduced populations of brant and white-fronted geese. The National Research Council, for example, found in its 2003 report on the cumulative effects of oil and gas activities on Alaska's North Slope, "If development moves into the Teshekpuk Lake area of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, molting waterfowl could be adversely affected, especially brant."

These potential impacts led the Pacific Flyway Council, which is composed of public wildlife agency representatives from the states and provinces in the western United States, Canada and Mexico, to recommend that "the sensitive goose molting area should not be offered for leasing" and that the Teshekpuk Lake area "be given permanent protection from future development by Secretarial designation."

In his preliminary decision, Judge James Singleton of the federal court in Alaska found that BLM had violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to consider fully the cumulative effects of proposed development in the NPRA. The judge noted that, because BLM prevailed in earlier litigation concerning the northwestern NPRA, by arguing that it would consider cumulative effects when it conducted the environmental analysis for the northeastern NPRA, the agency could not now argue that it has no such duty to consider these effects in the northeastern NPRA analysis. The judge also found that, in its biological assessment of the effects of oil and gas development on Stellar and speckled eiders, BLM failed to use the best information available, as required by the Endangered Species Act, because it omitted consideration of these same cumulative effects.

Just a week prior to the judge's ruling, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne had announced that BLM was set to go forward on September 27 with leasing 8 million acres, including 500,000 acres in the designated Teshekpuk Lake area, saying that his tour of the special area left him more convinced than ever that energy development could coexist with environmental protection.

A final decision is expected by the court within the next week.

September 09, 2006