WASHINGTON -- The Interior Department on Friday disputed a study in which its own scientists warned that oil exploration in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could endanger wildlife, especially musk oxen and the huge Porcupine caribou herd.
A spokesman for Interior Secretary Gail Norton said the report was not relevant to President Bush's proposal to open the area, known as ANWR, to oil drillers.
This is one more brick in a wall of science that tells us that turning a magnificent wildlife refuge into an industrial oil complex is going to be bad for wildlife. The oil industry wants to drill in the biological heart of this sanctuary, and anyone who claims that the wildlife will do just fine either is on an oil company's payroll or specializes in wishful thinking.
William Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society
Norton, whose department has jurisdiction over the refuge, has been an outspoken advocate of allowing the oil exploration.
Authors of the study, which was based on 12 years of research, were given 10 days to come up with another study that would take into account environmental safeguards that the administration contends its plan would include.
The study was written by biologists in the Alaska Science Center of the U.S. Geological Survey, a division of the Interior Department.
The authors warned that ANWR wildlife, including caribou, musk oxen, polar bears and migrating birds, would be vulnerable to oil development.
It said risks to the Porcupine caribou, a herd named for Alaska's Porcupine River, would range from negligible to substantial, depending on the type of exploration involved.
The herd "may be particularly sensitive to development" because it has little quality habitat elsewhere, and the survival of calves born on the refuge's coastal plain is linked to the animals' ability to move freely, the report said.
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 that 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.
The authors were blocked for several hours Friday from posting the study on the Internet.
During that time, Norton's press secretary, Mark Pfeifle, issued statements saying that the study did not take into account environmental protections anticipated by the president's plan and relied on "science fiction" scenarios to reach its conclusions.
"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 commonsense management, we can protect wildlife and produce energy," Pfeifle said.
A White House spokesman said the report did not address the kind of ANWR exploration Bush would allow.
But environmentalists and other opponents of the plan lost no time in praising the study.
"This is one more brick in a wall of science that tells us that turning a magnificent wildlife refuge into an industrial oil complex is going to be bad for wildlife," said William Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society. "The oil industry wants to drill in the biological heart of this sanctuary, and anyone who claims that the wildlife will do just fine either is on an oil company's payroll or specializes in wishful thinking."
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 that 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."
On the Web:
USGS report: http://alaska.usgs.gov/BSR-2002/usgs-brd-bsr-2002-001.htm
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