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Conservation, Energy Development Clash in Alaska - 2001-09-06

A plan by the Bush administration to search for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has sparked debate, especially in Alaska. At stake is national security, the environment and lots of money.

In August, the U.S. House of Representatives approved exploratory drilling in the narrow coastal plain of ANWR, the national wildlife refuge in northern Alaska. Now, debate moves to the U.S. Senate, where Alaska's two Republican senators, Ted Stevens and Frank Murkowski, support the measure.

Mr. Murkowski is the ranking member of the senate energy and natural resources committee. His spokesman, Joseph Brenckle, says the United States relies too heavily on oil from other countries. "In fact, we're 57 percent dependent now, while in 1980, we were 30 percent dependent," he says. "We went to war with Iraq in 1991, and we lost 147 soldiers. And this [Saddam Hussein] is someone from whom we buy between 750,000 and one million barrels of oil a day. Is this someone who we want to get our oil from?"

Supporters of oil exploration in ANWR say possible deposits there could replace the oil that is now being bought from Iraq.

The oil industry says ANWR could hold up to 16 billion barrels of oil. Depending on its price at the time, industry experts say seven to 10 billion barrels could be recovered economically. Critics say that figure is much too high and they point out that no one knows how much oil is in the region. Opponents say that, even if ANWR meets optimistic expectations, the United States will still need foreign oil. Supporters of drilling respond that opening ANWR's reserves is an important first step toward energy independence.

For the people of Alaska, it is a matter of dollars and cents. Alaska has 29 percent of known U.S. oil reserves, and the state accounts for one-sixth of the nation's current oil production. Oil taxes and lease revenues bring $2 billion a year into Alaska's treasury.

About half of the state's oil now comes from Prudhoe Bay, a massive North Slope oil field just 160 kilometers west of ANWR. But oil production at Prudhoe Bay is declining at least six percent a year, and the coastal plain of ANWR is the most promising source of oil to replace it.

Environmental organizations, and most Democrats in Washington, are working to block the proposal to open ANWR to drilling. Mark Myers, director of Alaska's division of oil and gas, thinks they are wrong. "The issues revolve around the wildlife, the scenic values, versus the economic advantages of developing oil and gas, and the national interest in having a secure domestic energy supply, and the need to increase that energy supply," says Mr. Myers. "I think that frames the debate. Within that debate, I believe there's a lot of data that is applicable in terms of how safely oil and gas development can be done and what sorts of impacts it really would have, given stringent environmental controls on that development."

Mr. Myers says new drilling techniques allow a minimal "footprint" - the term the industry uses to describe the surface-area used for oil development. The national wildlife refuge is slightly less than eight million hectares in size, and only-eight percent of the area would be opened for drilling. The footprint of drilling pads and their connecting pipelines would cover just 800 hectares under the plan approved by the House of Representatives.

For oil industry consultant Ken Boyd, the impact would be slight. "There'll be no impact from exploration, in my opinion, because all the exploration is done in the winter," he says. "It's all done on ice. The ice melts away in the spring."

If exploration is successful, it would probably lead to year-round production, which Mr. Boyd admits is a different matter. Still, supporters of drilling like Mr. Boyd say new technology, such a directional drilling at several kilometer's distance, will limit the impact on the area's wildlife.

Critics are skeptical. They say the affected area could spread out like a spider's web and still technically meet the 800 hectare limit. They argue that drilling will disrupt the delicate ecological balance of ANWR's coastal region, and note that the coastal plain is dry and that roads and platforms made from ice require an abundance of water. In addition, they say the drilling will harm the Porcupine River caribou, which give birth to their young in the refuge.

Supporters of drilling admit the low supply of water is a challenge, but they say they can surmount it, and they point to a thriving caribou herd that spends the summer at Prudhoe Bay to argue that oil drilling and wildlife are compatible.

One oil industry veteran breaks ranks with his colleagues and says efforts to limit the impact of drilling are unrealistic. Jack Roderick is the longtime publisher of an oil industry periodical and the author of a history of oil in Alaska and a former mayor of the city of Anchorage. He believes the exploration of ANWR should be postponed. "I think we ought to leave it alone. We may some day in our country have a crisis," he says. "We will have to go back and look for it, because there's probably oil there. Being an oilman, I think there's liable to be oil, but I don't see the need for it now."

Critics like Mr. Roderick say a national petroleum reserve covering 10 million hectares further west in Alaska is a better place for drilling. The oil industry points to one of its newly developed fields there to argue that drilling in ANWR can be done with minimal impact. The so-called Alpine oil field covers just 40 hectares of surface land, but draws oil from 16,000 hectares beneath the surface.

For environmentalist Deborah Williams, director of the Alaska Conservation Foundation, the issue is larger than the fate of ANWR's coastal plain; it's about conservation and the development of alternative energy supplies. "This is a very symbolic battle," she says. "This is a Rubicon [a decisive, irrevocable step] for the United States. The question is: Can we as a country conserve and come up with alternative energy that will, in fact, help our national security, or will we choose to do a short-sighted greedy activity that will not help anything and will dramatically hurt the environment?"

Most Alaskan Democrats and Republicans support the administration plan to open ANWR to drilling. Opinion polls show that a majority of Americans oppose it. The battle will now be fought in the committee rooms and on the floor of the Senate.