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Alaskan Emotions Run High for Oil Drilling Debate - 2001-09-04

One of the most contentious debates in Washington this fall will concern the fate of an isolated stretch of coastline in Northern Alaska. The U.S. House of Representatives has approved an administration plan to allow oil exploration in a small part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, known as ANWR. The measure now goes to the Senate, where Democrats promise to block it. Emotions are running high in the northern-most U.S. state, where oil has fueled economic development.

In Anchorage, a small city of one-quarter million residents, the buildings of petroleum firms like Phillips and Unocal are a prominent part of the skyline. And each year in Alaska, every man, woman and child in Alaska receives between $1,500 and $2,000 from the so-called permanent fund.

The $26 billion account is financed by oil revenues, which also allow Alaskans the unusual luxury of paying no state sales tax and no state income tax. Like all U.S. residents, of course, Alaskans must still pay their federal taxes.

But big oil has been good to the state and Alaskans are grateful, according to David Cline, who directs the Alaska office of the World Wildlife Fund. He notes that 80-percent of Alaska's government revenues come from the oil industry, and residents are responsive to its wishes. "It is the dominant economic driving force in our state and does have the majority support of the citizens of the state," he says. "And the fact that they [the oil companies] are interested in drilling on-shore or offshore, they have the support of the majority of the Alaska citizens. But not the support of the majority of Americans that also have an interest here because many of our lands and waters are federal or national-interest lands and waters that do not belong to the state of Alaska. So therein are the seeds of very deep controversy."

Oil played a minor role in Alaska's economy until the 1950's, when oil deposits were found in southern Alaska on the Kenai Peninsula. Then large international companies began to explore other potential oil fields. In 1968, oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay on Alaska's north coast. The deposit of more than 10 billion barrels was the largest in North America.

In the 1970's, the industry built a 1,300-kilometer pipeline to carry crude oil south to Valdez. From there, ocean-going tankers ferry it to the "Lower-48" states for refinement.

But in March, 1989, an environmental disaster off the coast of southern Alaska led to cries of outrage from environmentalists. The Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound, spilling 260,000 barrels of crude oil into the inlet.

The oil killed thousands of sea mammals and tens-of-thousands of marine birds, covering 26,000 square kilometers of one of the world's most scenic bodies of water. Exxon paid a $1 billion settlement to Alaskan and U.S. officials, and the company spent another $2 billion for the cleanup.

Deborah Williams of the Alaska Conservation Foundation says that 12-years later, the wildlife of the region still shows the effects of the oil spill. "There are many species who have not recovered at all, such as harbor seals and orca [killer] whales, and then there are other species that have only partially recovered," she says. "Recently, scientists went out and took random surveys of beaches to determine whether there was any oil left and, if so, how much. Most of the sample sites had significant amounts of oil."

But Exxon and its supporters say oil occurs here naturally, and many deposits under the ocean were released by a major earthquake in 1964.

Brad Phillips is a former member of the Alaska state senate who conducts tours of Prince William Sound aboard a sightseeing ship. He believes the region has fully recovered and that a Pacific Ocean phenomenon a current known as El Nino that causes unusual weather patterns has harmed seabirds in the region more than the oil did.

Mr. Phillips says new safety measures, including the phasing-in of double-hulled oil tankers, provide added protection for wildlife in Alaska waters. "The other thing that I think is a real plus, it is expensive, but it works, you have to have at least two modern tugs accompany each tanker as it goes in and goes out of the sound," he says. "So they have got protection in case they lose steering or an accident happens, they can handle the vessel themselves."

Mr. Phillips says he accepts oil industry assurances that oil drilling in wilderness regions will be done carefully.

The battle lines are drawn between the two-thirds of Alaskans who support oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, and one quarter of Alaskans who are against it. The numbers are nearly reversed in the rest of the country, where a majority of Americans are opposed to the drilling.

Opponents worry of possible harm to the so-called porcupine caribou that give birth on ANWR's coastal plain, and of the impact on the Gwich'in Indians who hunt the caribou. Environmentalists like David Cline and Deborah Williams also worry of possible harm to other wildlife and vegetation in the coastal tundra region.

The Bush administration supports the plan for oil exploration in the wildlife refuge, noting that the act of Congress that created the refuge left the option open in ANWR's coastal plain.

Cam Toohey is special assistant for Alaska to the U.S. secretary of the interior. Mr. Toohey, a former lobbyist for a nonprofit group that wants to open the refuge to drilling, says modern technology and heightened environmental concerns mean test drilling in the refuge will be done safely. "You put a priority to protecting the wildlife," he says. "And you make sure that your development is not chosen over wildlife."

Environmental activists respond that the history of oil exploration in Alaska shows that accidents will happen, and their results can be devastating.

In coming weeks, the Senate will take up the debate in Washington.