ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The vast National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska is drawing more attention now that oil drillers have effectively been locked out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Like ANWR, the petroleum reserve to the west could harbor lots of oil and gas, and oil companies would like to get at it. But conservationists are concerned about the effect of drilling, particularly on the reserve's rich bird life.
The debate could intensify when the federal Bureau of Land Management holds a public hearing this week in Anchorage on opening a new 8.8 million-acre swath of the reserve.
Curt Wilson, chief of planning and environmental coordination with the Alaska BLM office, helped draft a 1,000-page environmental report on options for using the reserve's midsection, known as the Northwest Planning Area. This would be the second of the reserve's three zones to be studied for possible oil and gas development.
Alternatives range from making the whole area available to oil and gas exploration to none at all.
The BLM expects to issue a final decision in early November.
President Warren G. Harding created the 23 million-acre reserve by executive order in 1923, citing the ''large seepages of petroleum along the Arctic coast of Alaska.''
The coast held plenty of oil, all right, but it was found a good 60 miles or so east of the reserve at Prudhoe Bay in 1967.
Oil has since been pumped from other fields on Prudhoe's flanks, but none has come from the remote petroleum reserve. Developing oil and gas from there likely would require hundreds of miles of roads and pipelines to tie it into the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
Some apparently successful drilling was done recently in the reserve's northeastern corner. In 2001, oil company Conoco Phillips, the state's top oil producer, announced it had found three promising oil and gas prospects there.
Last year, the U.S. Geological Survey issued a new estimate of the reserve's oil and gas potential. It likely contains between 5.9 billion and 13.2 billion barrels of recoverable oil.
Of particular interest to oilmen is the Barrow Arch, a potentially oil-rich geologic vein that cuts across Prudhoe Bay and west through the reserve, including the middle zone now being considered for development.
Industry players were disappointed that the Clinton administration previously excluded 600,000 acres overlying some of the Barrow Arch because the wetlands are nesting areas for brant, Canada geese, peregrine falcons and other birds.
Once the public review process is complete, the BLM hopes to hold an oil and gas lease sale for oil explorers in May or June 2004, Wilson said. The state and federal governments would split proceeds from those sales.
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