Interior Chief Kempthorne Tours Arctic Wildlife Refuge

By H. Josef Hebert
Associated Press
Friday, September 1, 2006

KAKTOVIK, Alaska, Aug. 31 -- Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne made his first visit Thursday to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, center of a 25-year battle over whether to tap vast oil reserves under a coastal plain along the Beaufort Sea.

Kempthorne was to meet with tribal leaders and with officials in the refuge's only village before concluding a three-day tour of Alaska's North Slope that also included checking out the early warning system for detecting a deadly bird flu virus and examining a corroded pipeline that has shut down half the area's oil production.

His flight from Deadhorse, 120 miles to the west, had been turn backed earlier when a heavy fog prevented his chartered twin-engine turboprop from landing. The weather cleared later and Kempthorne continued with his schedule.

Kempthorne, a former Idaho governor and Republican senator who was confirmed as interior secretary in May, supports oil drilling in a 1.5 million-acre area of the 19 million-acre refuge and voted for it when he was in the Senate.

"There's a [wildlife] reserve there," he said before the aborted flight. "But we've seen so many different areas where we can responsibly recover resources and do it while meeting the highest environmental standards. I think it's also important to see it."

Environmentalists look at the refuge as North America's Serengeti -- inhabited by 45 species of land and marine mammals including polar, grizzly and black bears as well as musk oxen and caribous. Millions of migratory birds also use the refuge's coastal plain.

Under it is what geologists say is the nation's largest untapped oil reserve, variously estimated at between 5.6 billion and 16 billion barrels.

Kempthorne was accompanied on his North Slope tour by senior Interior officials and several of the department's regional officials, based in Anchorage.

On Wednesday, Kempthorne toured a Prudhoe Bay oil complex operated by BP PLC, including a visit to the stretch of BP pipeline where severe pipe corrosion caused Prudhoe oil production to shut down in early August.

Half the pipeline system has since been restored, bypassing a section where corrosion caused a 270,000-gallon spill in March. But the other half remains out of commission as BP engineers try to determine if part of it can be used temporarily.

BP said it is replacing the 16 miles of pipe next year.

Kempthorne, earlier on his trip, visited ConocoPhillips' Alpine oil fields, the newest on the North Slope.

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