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US OKs Commercial Drilling in Alaska Oil Reserve

The US Interior Department on Friday gave final approval to a plan by ConocoPhillips and partner Anadarko Petroleum Corp. to develop five tracts around the oil-rich Alpine field on Alaska's North Slope.

The department's Bureau of Land Management authorized the first commercial development of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, allowing the companies to go forward with developing the tracts, which are located in the northeastern corner of the reserve.

Production from these fields, which together hold more than 330 million barrels of oil, will start by 2006, according to the BLM. They will supplement production from the Alpine fields, which hold 429 million barrels and have a daily oil output of about 100,000 barrels.

Environmentalists have criticized the plan to develop these Alpine satellite fields as a rollback of environmental protections promised during the Clinton administration.

The BLM said it modified the original development proposal to offer greater protection to wildlife and sensitive habitats in the reserve.

Some of the major changes include relocating portions of the gravel access roads and pipeline routes, moving power lines and raising pipelines an additional 2 feet to 7 feet to help migrating caribou.

"It allows for the energy development our country needs, while protecting the land, water and wildlife. It will show that this, and future Arctic development, can and will be done in an environmentally sensitive way," said Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Rebecca Watson.

The petroleum reserve, the size of Indiana, was set aside in 1923 for its energy potential, but until recently it has been ignored in favor of the region to the east, around the giant Prudhoe Bay field.

The Bush administration believes the new Congress next year will approve oil drilling in the separate Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which may hold up to 16 billion barrels of crude.

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