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Proposal to Drill in Alaska Refuge Leads to Intense Debate - 2001-09-06

The U.S. Senate is considering a proposal to search for oil in the coastal plain of a wildlife refuge in Alaska. Environmentalists, and most Democrats, are working to block the plan, which they say would harm the wildlife in the sensitive Arctic region.

Each year, a herd of nearly 130,000 caribou makes the journey from Canada. They head north across the Porcupine River to summer on the north coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR. If weather conditions are good and the caribou reach their destination, they give birth in late June or early July on the grasslands on the shore of the Beaufort Sea. The region is also home to 300 musk oxen, which live in the region year-round, and in wintertime it is home to polar bears. At various times of the year, they are joined by tundra swans, snow geese, and dozens of other species of birds and mammals.

But the coastal plain is also home to one of North America's most promising oil deposits. In 1960, Congress set aside this region in northern Alaska as a wildlife refuge. There are now 530 such refuges in the United States. In 1980, Congress doubled the size of ANWR to nearly eight million hectares, nearly the size of Ireland. But in a compromise with pro-development interests, 600,000 hectares were set aside for study, leaving open the possibility of further development there.

In 1984 and 1985, geologists conducted seismic tests and concluded that the region may contain large pockets of oil. Through the 1990s, Alaska state officials have tried to open the area to oil exploration. Such a proposal was attached to the federal budget in 1995, leading President Clinton to veto the budget and temporarily shut down the government.

The United States imports more than half of the oil that it uses, and President Bush, who is himself a former oil man, says additional oil from Alaska will help the country achieve energy independence. Most Republicans in Congress agree with him.

For conservationist David Cline, who heads the Alaska office of the World Wildlife Fund, the plan is just the latest of many efforts to spoil Alaska's pristine wilderness. He says he and his colleagues are now engaged in a battle. "In the minds of people like myself and other conservationists here and throughout the country, the major compromises have been made and we're not willing to make any more compromises on a crown jewel in this system of protected areas, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, when we don't feel it's in the national interest," he says.

Biologist Fran Mauer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, studies the wildlife of ANWR. He says one of the key arguments in the environmental dispute concerns the Porcupine Caribou, which move to the coastal region during their critical calving time. "At that time they're very sensitive to human disturbance," he explains, "and studies have shown over in the oil field area (in Prudhoe Bay) where the caribou herd calves, at calving time the females with their young calves move away as much as four kilometers from roads and pipes and areas of human disturbance."

In 1987, the Fish and Wildlife Service reported to Congress that oil drilling in ANWR would have major effects on caribou and musk oxen, and a moderate impact on a number of other species.

Supporters of oil development point to a thriving caribou herd that spends its summers at Prudhoe Bay, a nearby oil field on north coast of Alaska. The so-called Central Arctic Caribou herd has grown at least five times in size since the pipelines and oil processing plants were built in the 1970s. Oil industry spokesmen say the caribou move freely under the pipelines, and are able to retreat to more isolated places areas when they give birth.

But the coastal plain at ANWR is narrow, at some points just 30 kilometers wide. That is a problem for Porcupine Caribou, according to Mr. Mauer. "In the case of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, we have a caribou herd that's five times as large coming within a physical that's limited to about one fifth as much area as the Central Arctic Caribou herd has," he says. "So you have five times as many caribou using one-fifth as much area, and we know already that caribou are sensitive at this time."

The biologist says if the caribou move southward into the mountains, they are subject to attack by wolves and other predators, and they also face a reduced supply of food.

Oil industry spokesmen say these concerns are exaggerated. They point out that Alaska has 15 caribou herds, and many coexist with oil development. Supporters of oil exploration say caribou sometimes gather under pipelines to take shelter. And supporters of development say new technology limits the impact of oil drilling on the surface. They say that small drilling pads would be separated by several kilometers.

Mark Myers, director of Alaska's Division of Oil and Gas, says the oil industry can co-exist with wildlife in the region. He notes most people in Alaska, and the Inupiat Eskimos who live in the Arctic refuge, support oil drilling in ANWR. "I guess we believe up here that you basically can in a lot of ways have your cake and eat it too, and have minimal effect to the population of wildlife, great benefit to the people of Alaska, and great benefit to the people that live in the refuge," says Mr. Myers.

However, another native American group, the Gwich'in people at the south end of ANWR, oppose drilling in the coastal plain. They say it will hurt the caribou, which they rely on for food. They have joined environmentalists in demanding that the region be left alone.

Todd Logan, chief of the national wildlife refuge system for Alaska, says Congress must decide whether or not to develop ANWR, and whatever it decides, there is a trade-off. "There's no doubt there will be impacts associated with any development, and the United States congress ultimately has to make the decision whether the tradeoffs for oil and gas development are appropriate in the context of development on a national wildlife refuge," says Mr. Logan.

In August, the House of Representatives approved oil drilling in ANWR by a narrow vote of 223-206. Democrats in the Senate promise to block the plan.