Bush administration moves to repudiate biologists’ Alaska report

By John Heilprin, The Associated Press
Saturday March 30, 2002

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration acted Friday to repudiate a report by government biologists that concluded drilling for oil in an Alaskan wildlife refuge would pose substantial risks to the Porcupine caribou herd and other wildlife. 

Charles Groat, director of the U.S. Geological Survey, which issued the report, wrote Interior Secretary Gale Norton that he was asking scientists to re-evaluate their conclusions using drilling plans the administration contends would be less damaging to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 

“We’re not looking at what the USGS studied,” said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe, who was with President Bush in Texas on Friday. “We are talking about exploring a very small part of ANWR.” 

Groat told Norton he ordered biologists to report back within 10 days on what drilling proponents say is a scaled-back scenario from those studied by the Geological Survey’s office in the Interior Department. 

Interior officials also pointed to the report’s conclusions that risks to wildlife — including musk oxen, polar bears and migrating birds — could be reduced by restricting and closely managing oil exploration and production. 

“The report bolsters the administration’s mandate that ANWR production must require the most stringent environmental protections ever imposed. It demonstrates that with new technology, tough regulations and common sense management, we can protect wildlife and produce energy,” said department spokesman Mark Pfeifle. 

In their report Friday, the biologists make no recommendation whether the refuge should be developed, but they said the region’s wildlife are vulnerable to disturbances like those from oil drilling. 

The Porcupine caribou herd, which uses the coastal plain for calving each summer, “may be particularly sensitive to development” because it has little quality habitat elsewhere, and the survival of calves is linked to the animals’ ability to move freely, the report said. 

Groat acknowledged that adverse risks to the Porcupine caribou “would depend on the type of development and where the development occurred.” 

The 78-page report is based on an examination of 12 years of research into wildlife activities and the ecology of the Arctic refuge’s 1.5 million-acre coastal plain, which may contain about 11.4 billion barrels of oil.  

Preparing for exploitation of the reserves would take 10 years. 

Ending Congress’ long-standing ban on oil exploration in the wildlife refuge was a major plank in both Bush’s presidential campaign in 2000 and his administration’s energy plan announced a year ago. 

The Republican-controlled House voted last year to allow drilling in the Alaska refuge. Supporters have been reluctant to bring it up in the Senate, but a Senate vote could come as early as the second week of April. 

“Once again the administration has released a report undermining its own case,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. He said the findings confirm “the environmental destruction that would occur” if oil drilling is allowed in the refuge. 

Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, said every time biologists study drilling in the refuge, they find it would have a serious impact on wildlife. 

“There’s no new scenario in the (House) bill,” Pope said. “The entire area would be open for drilling. The new science still does not enable you to develop the refuge without destroying its habitat.” 

As with the case of the caribou, the study found that development of the refuge’s coastal plain may pose risks to other wildlife: 

—Musk oxen were described as particularly “vulnerable to disturbances” from oil and gas exploration because they live in the region year-round, including winter when oil exploration would be most intense. 

—Snow geese, among millions of migratory birds on the coastal plain, could be displaced because of increased activity. It cannot be assumed the geese would find adequate feeding areas elsewhere, the study said. 

—Denning polar bears also might be adversely affected, the assessment said. It said, however, that “aggressive and proactive management” could minimize or even eliminate most of the problem. 


On the Net: 

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: http://www.r7.fws.gov/nwr/arctic/arctic.html 

Arctic Power: http://www.anwr.org/ 

Alaska Wilderness League: http://www.alaskawild.org/ 

Energy Department map of area: http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/reps/states/maps/ak.html 

USGS report: http://alaska.usgs.gov/BSR-2002/usgs-brd-bsr-2002-001.html