Special protections proposed for wildlife habitat in the 36,000-square-mile National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska would block oil development on half the area but Alaska officials' immediate concern is how it would affect offshore drilling.
Alaska's congressional delegation said U.S. Interior Department restrictions on the Indiana-size reserve likely will add expense for a pipeline that could carry oil from offshore wells in the Chukchi Sea to the trans-Alaska pipeline. At worst, it could block access.
"The new preferred alternative still seems to close off several options for building a pipeline across the NPR-A," said Democratic Sen. Mark Begich in a statement after the Interior announcement.
Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she's hearing concerns about what a non-direct route will do to the cost of funneling Chukchi Sea oil to the 800-mile pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez.
"It may be a situation where it is more expensive to figure out how we gain access through a pipeline and we end up tankering, to which I said, 'Gosh, that's not the way to go,' " she said.
Alaska receives upward of 90 percent of its state government revenue from the petroleum industry and a continuing worry is diminishing production from North Slope fields. The 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline in recent years has been running at less than one-third capacity.
Alaskans have been looking to offshore development to refill the pipeline, starting with exploratory drilling on federal leases in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas by Shell Oil Co.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last week said the preferred NPR-A plan allows a pathway for the construction of a pipeline. Areas of special protection could be crossed if regulatory requirements are met, he said. Such areas will protect breeding areas for migratory birds and the Western Arctic and Teshekpuk caribou herds, Salazar said. Much of the coast would be declared off-limits to development to preserve habitat for seals, polar bears and other marine mammals.
President Warren Harding set aside NPR-A in 1923 as an emergency oil supply for the Navy. Murkowski said the new special protection areas violate the "no more" wilderness rule promised with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which in 1980 added protections for more than 156,250 square miles of Alaska.
"This is a petroleum reserve," she said. "It was not designated as refuge. It was not designated as wilderness. It is a reserve and when it was transferred from the Navy to BLM (Bureau of Land Management), that status did not change."
Murkowski said Interior Department buzzwords are in place but she's skeptical.
"When you look at the maps, I think it has to raise a concern about how you have access to your pipeline corridors and what it's going to do to the costs we're looking at," she said.
U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said the proposed plan adds uncertainty and delay to development projects at a time when the country needs both the energy and the jobs.
"If we can't develop NPR-A, where will this administration let us develop?" he asked.