LOOKING FOR OIL.
On Alaska's North Slope, nestled between the rugged Brooks Range and the Beaufort Sea, lies "America's Last Great Wilderness"--the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). It's a vast stretch of treeless earth that covers 19.8 million acres, an area about the size of South Carolina.
At first glance, the refuge may look like a frozen desert. But it isn't. Rivers and streams winding through the Arctic refuge give life to hundreds of plant and animal species.
Polar bears, musk oxen, and moose thrive in this fragile arctic climate, Caribou come here to give birth. Birds migrate from across the globe to breed and nest. Native American tribes and Inuit also depend on the region's natural resources to survive.
The ANWR has been getting a lot of attention lately. But it's not the refuge's pristine beauty that has people talking. President George W. Bush wants to open 1.5 million acres along the coastal plain of the refuge to oil exploration. "I campaigned hard on the notion of having environmentally sensitive explorations at ANWR' Bush says, "and I think we can do so."
President Bush believes that opening the refuge to oil exploration will reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and keep energy costs low. The U.S. imports more than 50 percent of its oil from other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran. If those countries cut off oil supplies or raise prices too high, the U.S. economy could take a tumble.
President Bush has set up a task force, headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, to look at ways of increasing U.S. energy production. "We understand--fully understand--what high energy costs can mean to people in America," Bush says. "And we're going to formulate a strategy to deal with it."
Recent blackouts and skyrocketing electricity prices in California have raised fears of energy shortages (see March 12 issue, pp. 8-10). Bush believes that oil from the Arctic refuge could help prevent future blackouts.
According to government estimates, the ANWR is the most promising place in the U.S. to look for oil. Scientists estimate that 3 to 16 billion barrels of oil could lie beneath the wilderness area.
But the Bush administration isn't just looking for oil. The administration also wants to look for natural gas in the Rocky Mountains. A recent study found that about 10 percent of the country's natural gas reserves lie beneath the Rockies. "We want to ensure that energy production is taking place in those areas where the environment can most tolerate that," says Interior Secretary Gale Norton.
Republican leaders in the Senate agree that the U.S. needs to produce more of its own energy. In February, they introduced an energy bill that would allow oil drilling in the ANWR. "At no time in our history have we really relied upon [other countries] for more of our energy supplies," says Republican Senator Frank Murkowski of Alaska, a chief author of the bill.
The Republican energy bill will likely face a tough fight in Congress. In addition to solid Democratic opposition, at least seven Republican Senators oppose drilling in the refuge. Says Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire: "What a great legacy it would be if generations from now [people] would look back and say, 'When it came time to preserve the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, they stood firm!"'
Environmentalists say there are good reasons to oppose oil drilling in the ANWR. Oil spills could pollute the refuge's fragile environment. Roads and pipelines would have to be built, which could destroy wildlife habitats.
"Oil development in a wilderness, no matter how sensitive, changes the very nature of it," says Richard Fineberg, an environmental consultant. "It means it's no longer a wilderness."
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says that the damage oil drilling would cause to the environment isn't worth the amount of oil it would yield. They estimate that ANWR drilling would produce about 3 billion barrels of oil--only enough to supply the U.S. for six months.
A better solution, they say, is to use less energy. One way: Build cars that get more miles to the gallon. "Even a modest and long overdue effort to improve [fuel] efficiency could... conserve more than 15 times the oil that the Arctic refuge would produce," says Greg Wetstone of the NRDC.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the fuel efficiency of American cars has actually declined 7 percent since 1988. One reason is because Americans are buying more sport utility vehicles, which burn a lot of gasoline.
How Big a Risk?
Supporters of oil drilling say that advanced technology has greatly reduced the risk of dangers associated with oil development. "We've learned a lot over the years," says Joseph Hegna, an environmental manager for ARCO Alaska, an oil company. "The footprint [lasting damage] required for new developments is a tenth of what it once was."
Senator Murkowski says that when oil drilling began 30 years ago in neighboring Prudhoe Bay, people thought it would devastate the Arctic caribou herd. "Today, that herd is more than triple the size it was then," he says.
Instead of destroying wildlife, the Prudhoe Bay oil fields boosted the U.S. economy, says Cam Toohey of Arctic Power, a group that supports drilling in the ANWR.
Toohey estimates that drilling in the refuge could create between 250,000 and 735,000 jobs in Alaska and other states. "Oil is as important to Alaska's economy," he says, "as farms are to the Midwest or computers are to California."
Environmentalists say that jobs and oil should not come before the environment. "This is federal land," says Melinda Pierce of the Sierra Club. "The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge belongs to all of us, not just Alaskans."
Jim Kurth, deputy director of the National Wildlife Refuge System, cautions that there isn't enough information about the damage that drilling would do to wildlife.
In a recent survey, many wildlife managers said oil and gas operations at their refuges were incompatible with wildlife protection. "If you ask, is a refuge better off with or without oil and gas development, I'd probably say without," says Dan Ashe, chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System.
The People of Alaska
While politicians, oil companies, and environmentalists continue to debate the future of the ANWR, Alaska's people are caught in the middle.
Many Alaskans support oil drilling, saying that it will boost the state's economy. But native peoples are split on the issue. Members of the Gwich'in tribe oppose drilling because they fear it might harm caribou, which they rely on for food. But members of the Inupiat tribe favor drilling because they need money from oil.
For now, the refuge is still one of the most beautiful and unspoiled wilderness areas of the country. But how long it will stay that way.
Think About It
1. Should oil companies drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?
2. What are some other ways to reduce dependence on foreign oil?
Country Population (In millions) 1999 Petroleum Consumption CHINA 1,262 4,320 U.S. 281.4 19,519 RUSSIA 146 2,396 JAPAN 126.5 5,572 U.K. 59.5 1,717 FRANCE 59.3 2,027 Map Source: Refuge Management Information System; Graph Source: Energy Information Administration Note: Table made from Bar graph
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|Date:||Apr 9, 2001|
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