The U.S. Interior Department announced it’s opening up some 2.6 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A) to exploratory drilling. A decision on drilling in the sensitive Teshekpuk Lake area of the reserve has been deferred for 10 years, delighting many environmentalists who have advocated for its permanent protection. Bidding on leases in the newly opened area will begin in October, though drilling won’t begin until at least 2010. About 3 million acres are already being drilled in other sections of the petroleum reserve, but commercial production hasn’t produced any oil from it yet. Democrats in Congress, eager to counter the Republican push to drill offshore, have crafted a bill to encourage more oil and gas drilling in already-available areas such as the NPR-A and parts of the Gulf of Mexico. The bill also prompts oil companies to drill on the hundreds of leases they already hold on public lands in the U.S. West before additional areas are opened.

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