Weather Prevents Interior Secretary From Visiting ANWR

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne tried to visit Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Thursday, but his twin-engine turboprop was turned back by intense fog that shrouded the area.

Kempthorne, after returning to Deadhorse, the only village within the refuge, said he might make another try later in the day.

The chartered 16-seat Beechcraft 1900 aircraft circled the Kaktovik landing strip for 25 minutes before the pilot decided the fog would not lift enough to make a safe landing and turned back to Deadhorse, 120 miles west of Kaktovik.

Kempthorne, who is near the end of a three-day visit to Alaska's North Slope, had hoped to conclude the trip by meeting with native leaders in Kaktovik and with an aerial tour of the refuge's 1.5-million-acre coastal strip, which the Bush administration for years has wanted to open to oil development.

It is Kempthorne's first visit to the North Slope. He was scheduled to return to Anchorage later in the day.

Named Interior secretary three months ago, Kempthorne supports oil drilling in the refuge, and he voted for the coastal strip's development while he was in the Senate.

"There's a (wildlife) reserve there," he said before the aborted flight. "But we've seen so many different areas where we can responsibly recover resources and do it while meeting the highest environmental standards. I think it's also important to see it."

Kempthorne was accompanied on his North Slope tour by senior Interior officials and several of the department's regional officials, based in Anchorage.

John Goll, the Alaska director for Interior's Minerals Management Service, said the fog along the Beaufort Sea is not unusual this time of year, and he saw a bright side.

"It's better often that you not get in, because if you get in you might not get out," said Goll.

On Wednesday, Kempthorne went to a Prudhoe Bay oil complex operated by BP PLC, including a visit to the stretch of BP pipeline where severe pipe corrosion caused Prudhoe oil production to shut down in early August.

Half of the pipeline system has since been restored, bypassing a section where corrosion caused a 270,000-gallon spill last March. But the other half remains out of commission as BP engineers try to determine of part of it can be used temporarily.

BP said it is replacing the 16 miles of pipe with new pipe next year.

Kempthorne, earlier on his trip, visited ConocoPhillips' Alpine oil fields, the newest on the North Slope.