Production cutbacks caused by two powerful hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico during September have pushed energy prices higher and led to renewed calls for oil exploration and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, in Alaska. This pristine area was set aside nearly 50 years ago and environmentalists oppose any development there, even though oil industry experts say new technology would prevent any disruption of wildlife there. VOA's Greg Flakus visited oil production facilities nearby ANWR and filed this report from Deadhorse, Alaska.
To see what impact oil development might have on ANWR's coastal plain, you need only look less than a hundred kilometers to the west, where energy companies like BP have been operating for nearly 40 years.
At this BP drill site, thousands of meters of pipe are being sent down through a drill shaft that has been directed horizontally out from the pad to an underground oil deposit.
Horizontal drilling techniques now allow oil companies to reach deposits in a 13,000 hectare area from an operations pad that occupies less than three hectares.
BP-Alaska executive Scott Digert says this makes it possible to operate with minimal impact on the environment.
"The footprint that we require for development here is much, much smaller than was done even at Prudhoe Bay back in the 1970s. This is a 2002 development, getting to a very small pad, up to 50 wells in this particular pad. The next pads will be even smaller and probably go out even farther than this pad has."
But environmental groups and some Alaska indigenous people say oil and gas development is, by its nature, disruptive of the environment. Pamela Miller is president of the environmental group Arctic Connections. She spoke with VOA during a recent visit to Washington.
"The oil companies operate 27 oilfields in Prudhoe Bay. It's a massive complex of roads, pipelines, drilling pads, and airports. In that area they have over 500 spills a year. They have air pollution, and nitrogen oxide is greater than [in] the City of Washington, D.C. And it's an industrial complex. You can't put a major industrial operation in the heart of a wildlife refuge and keep that wilderness area intact," Ms. Miller told us.
But the state of Alaska takes a different view. Mark Myers, who heads the state Division of Oil and Gas, says oil operations in ANWR would affect less than one percent of the reserve's area and would be confined to the coastal plain along the Arctic sea.
"The state of Alaska strongly believes that development can and should occur in the coastal plain, but only under stringent, protected environmental conditions, with strong use of advanced technologies, extreme minimization of the footprint and, again, with very strong environmental protections," said Mr. Myers.
The tundra is home to numerous species and federal Interior Department studies have shown little impact on them from oil operations. But Pamela Miller says any energy development in ANWR would ruin it.
"It wouldn't be a wildlife refuge. It would be an oilfield,” Ms. Miller said. “And it's just misleading and untrue to say that the impacts would be small. They would be major. They would be irreversible."
Mark Myers says most residents of the 49th state are strong conservationists, but they are still supportive of energy development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"Will you get 100 percent of Alaskans to agree on an issue, any issue?” asked Mr. Myers. “No. Do you have a majority of Alaskans clearly recognizing the economic-benefits balance versus the environmental-impacts balance? I think you do."
In the weeks ahead the fight over this issue will be played out in Congress, which will decide what is the greater priority: more domestic energy sources or protecting irreplaceable wilderness areas, and whether any balance of the two can be found.