ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- The Interior Department's plan for managing a vast petroleum reserve on Alaska's North Slope calls for a roughly 50-50 split between conservation and oil development plus accommodation for a pipeline that could carry offshore Arctic Ocean oil to the trans-Alaska pipeline.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Wednesday announced that the plan will allow for development of nearly 12 million acres within the 23 million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, an area roughly the size of Indiana.
Salazar said in his announcement that the plan will guide the transition from leasing and exploration to responsible production and transport of the reserve's oil and gas.
"A balanced approach will allow us to continue to expand our leasing in the NPR-A, as we've done over the last three years, while protecting significant caribou herds, migratory bird habitat and sensitive coastal resources that are critically important to the culture and subsistence lifestyle of Alaska Natives and our nation's conservation heritage," Salazar said in the announcement.
Salazar in August released details of a preferred alternative and called the reserve "an iconic place on our Earth."
The wildlife includes the 325,000 animals in the Western Arctic Caribou Herd and the 55,000 animals in the Teshekpuk Caribou Herd, sources of subsistence food for 40 northern and western Alaska Native villages.
Among areas restricted are environmentally sensitive Teshekpuk Lake, renowned for its habitat for migratory birds, including black brant, Canada geese and greater white-fronted geese
The plan generally has drawn praise from environmental groups.
"Secretary Salazar has taken a bold step to protect one of America's wildest places from energy development," said Charles Clusen of the Natural Resources Defense Council, by email.
Critics, however, said Salazar picked the most restrictive plan under consideration for the reserve created in 1923 by President Warren Harding as an oil reserve for the Navy.
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said more than 200 exploration wells have been drilled in the NPR-A since the 1940s and the U.S. Geological Survey estimates reserves at 900 million barrels of technically recoverable oil and 53 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Begich said in a press release that he was pleased that the plan included provisions to transport oil through the reserve but that the Interior Department has not cleared restrictions on petroleum development in the eastern portion.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she remained concerned that the plan sets up hurdles for pipelines carrying oil drilled offshore in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas to the trans-Alaska pipeline. Salazar should make it clear, she said, that future environmental review of potential pipeline routes will not prohibit their construction or make them prohibitively costly.
The reserve's legal purpose is to provide petroleum to ensure energy security, she said in a statement.
"What the announcement doesn't say is that the plan locks up 83.5 percent of the likely natural gas in the reserve," she said. "That is totally unacceptable to the nation and to future economy of Alaska."
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, called the plan "misguided."
"This plan does nothing more than cave to environmental special interests and unnecessarily restricts access to rich oil and natural gas resources within a petroleum reserve," he said.