ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ The weather didn't cooperate, but Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne marveled at the expanse of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, convinced that energy development and protecting the environment can coexist.
After a three-day swing across Alaska's North Slope and ending with a visit to the refuge in the state's northeast corner, Kempthorne was expected to press that view in a speech Friday to a business group and in a meeting with environmentalists.
While in the senate, Kempthorne voted for allowing oil drilling in the refuge's 1.5 million acre coastal plain, which geologists believe holds more than 10 billion barrels of oil. That's more than was thought to be at nearby Prudhoe Bay 30 years ago.
Prudhoe, along the same geological arch as the refuge, became the country's most prolific oil find.
But Kempthorne, a Republican from Idaho who was named interior secretary three months ago, had never been to Prudhoe or the Arctic refuge.
On Thursday he made a visit, although not quite what he had wanted. When Kempthorne's chartered twin-engine aircraft arrived at Kaktovik, the small village inside the refuge, it was shrouded in fog.
He had to return to Deadhorse, the oil town 120 miles to the west, and tried it again a few hours later. This time the fog had cleared enough to land, but the overcast was still too poor for his planned tour of the refuge.
Instead, Kempthorne stayed in Kaktovik, a town of about 260, mostly Inupiat natives, whose leaders welcomed the secretary, but told him they are worried oil companies will start drilling in the nearby Beaufort Sea and ruin their whaling, a tradition that they depend on for food.
The people in Kaktovik by a three-to-one margin support allowing oil companies onto the refuge's coastal plain, but drilling in their whaling areas is another matter.
The Interior Department has put a large area of water nearest to the town off limits to drilling, but has sold leases in waters to the east and west where the Inupiats fear drilling will drive away the whales. Shell Co. owns several leases in those waters and hopes to conduct seismic studies, possibly this fall.
The meeting between Kempthorne and the Kaktovik leaders was private. But several participants said the fear of offshore development was the main topic, a timely issue since whaling has been the talk of the community because the whale hunting season is about to open.
``This isn't just aestheics out there ... people depend on it for food,'' said Kaktovik Mayor Lon Sonsalla, referring to the whaling. Last year the town killed three whales, its limit.
Sonsalla said the town doesn't have the money to analyze complicated leasing plans much less fight the oil companies over them. Kempthorne said he would arrange for interior officials to help city leaders.
President Bush has called the Alaska refuge America's most promising untapped source of oil, but environmentalists for years have fought its development, arguing that oil rigs and pipes will threaten the polar bears, musk oxen and hundreds of thousands of migratory birds.
But Kempthorne said he's convinced modern oil drilling technology will allow ANWR's oil to be tapped and the wildlife protected. He said his tour of the North Slope has reinforced that belief.
``We've seen so many different areas where we can responsibly recover the resource and do it while meeting the highest environmental standards,'' Kempthorne said in an interview.
Earlier during his trip he visited the Alpine oil field operated by ConocoPhillips in the Colesville River delta west of Prudhoe Bay. It's one of the newest oil fields and uses directional drilling that limits the above ground footprint of oil rigs.
It's such technology, Kempthorne maintains, that would allow oil development in places like the Alaska refuge.
However, drilling in ANWR is banned unless Congress approves it. In 25 years of debate drilling proponents have been unable to get approval.