for National Geographic News
A recent spill of about 267,000 gallons (1 million liters) of oil in the tundra of Alaska's North Slope is raising a new round of questions from environmental groups about proposed plans to open more land in the region to oil drilling.
The North Slope region of Alaska (map) borders the Arctic Ocean and contains most of the state's petroleum reserves. It is also home to thousands of migratory birds, caribou, and other creatures.
The oil spill happened in the Prudhoe Bay oil field in late February, but it was not discovered for five days. The spill is the largest in the region's history.
"Thank God this happened in the winter," said Noah Matson, director of the federal lands program for the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife in Washington, D.C.
Wildlife is scarce in the region this time of year but will return when the snow melts this spring and summer.
Environmental groups have fought attempts by the Bush administration to open more lands on the North Slope, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to oil and gas development on the grounds that it would harm the environment.
The Bush administration believes the oil can be removed safely and that doing so will reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and natural gas.
Congress has repeatedly blocked initiatives to open the refuge, though the battle is not over. Last Thursday the U.S. Senate passed a budget resolution that contains instructions to open the refuge to oil drilling. This sets the stage for a battle in the House of Representatives later this year.
Natalie Brandon, policy director for the Alaska Wilderness League in Washington, D.C., said the Prudhoe Bay spill raises questions about the push to open up more areas of the North Slope to oil and gas development.
"The bottom line is these kinds of risks are inherent when you have oil production Do you want to put that risk somewhere like a wildlife refuge?" she said.
The Prudhoe Bay oil spill went undetected for five days before a field worker smelled the crude oil while driving through the area on March 2, an official with oil company BP said at a news conference in Anchorage on March 14.
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