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Arctic oil search moves to new turf, new controversies

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One is a long-protected portion of Arctic Alaska where a vast freshwater lake is edged by marshes that draw migrating birds from as far as Mexico and Russia. The other is a national wildlife refuge straddling the Arctic Circle, a watery haven for moose, furry mammals, and waterfowl.

But underneath both lie what may be some of the largest untapped pools of onshore oil and natural gas in the US. As a result, the two sites represent one of the next crucial frontiers in the nation's expanding energy wars.

In many respects, the fight quietly emerging over the two areas - Teshekpuk Lake and the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge - parallels the protracted battle over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). It is energy versus the environment, with elements of caribou and molting birds and native American culture mixed in.

But the latest fight also has its own dimensions that hold important practical and symbolic implications for a nation struggling to find the right balance between conservation and hydrocarbons.

Though long eyed by development interests, the Teshekpuk and Yukon sites are attracting new attention from the Bush administration and energy companies as oil prices spike and new technology makes it more economical to drill in remote areas.

Teshekpuk, meaning "big enclosed coastal water," is Alaska's third-largest lake. It and its nearby wetlands draw huge flocks of birds each summer, there to shed their feathers and fatten up. Most notable are the Pacific black brant: Nearly 30 percent of the geese head to Teshekpuk for their annual molt.

"There is nowhere else in the circumpolar Arctic that attracts so many molting geese," says Stan Senner, executive director of Audubon Alaska.

Drilling opponents point to a reverence for the region that crosses political bounds: Even James Watt, President Reagan's famously pro-development Interior secretary, deemed it too sensitive to drill. In 1998, the Clinton administration opened most of the northeast corner of the National Petroleum Reserve, of which Teshekpuk is a part, to oil leasing. But it kept the lake itself off limits.

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