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Arctic Refuge Takes Center Stage in Energy Battle

Energy—how we use it and where it comes from—could be the political thriller of the year, epitomized by the continuing battle over drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

polar bears

Half of Alaska's polar bears den in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Photograph by Norbert Rosing


Americans are energy hogs. With just five percent of the world's population, the United States uses 25 percent of world energy resources. The country imports 56 percent of the oil it uses, the equivalent of 208 days a year of foreign oil.

Characterizing this reliance on outside sources as a threat to national security and to our economy, Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), head of the Senate's Natural Resources Committee, introduced a bill on February 26 calling for the opening of the Arctic refuge to oil exploration and drilling.

Despite the fact that President George W. Bush supports drilling in ANWR and Vice President Dick Cheney is forming a committee to help shepherd the bill through Congress, Murkowski conceded that the battle to pass his bill will be titanic.

"I believe it will eventually happen. Our national security demands it," Sen. Murkowski told reporters upon introducing the new bill.

The recent energy crisis in California provided some momentum for the oil industry, which says that the coastal plain could contain the largest single untapped oil deposit in the United States. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental group, says that the amount of oil that could be extracted would last the United States about six months.

Last Great Wilderness

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, located in the northeastern corner of Alaska, was first established in 1960. At times called "America's last great wilderness," the area doubled in 1980 to almost 20 million acres (8 million hectares) under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

Under the act most of the refuge was designated as wilderness and therefore closed to development. A tiny corner of the refuge—1.5 million acres that came to be known as Area 1002—could be explored if Congress specifically authorized it.

In a recent speech, Secretary of the Interior Gail Norton compared the size of Area 1002 to the equivalent of a toaster in a four-bedroom house.

Conservationists argue that the "toaster" is prime habitat for wildlife. More than 160 bird species, 36 kinds of land mammals, nine marine mammal species, and 36 types of fish make their homes there, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

ANWR is the only protected intact arctic ecosystem in the United States, and it contains a wide range of habitats including coastal lagoons, barrier islands, arctic tundra, foothills, mountains, and boreal forests.

It is also sacred ground to the Gwichin Indians who live on the edge of the reserve and rely on the herds of porcupine caribou that calve in 1002 for food, clothing, tools, and ornaments.

In addition to being a permanent home to a variety of animals, the coastal plains ecosystem is a major stopover to millions of migratory birds; the eastern, western, and Rocky Mountain flyways—the aerial highways of migratory birds—all lead to Area 1002. Birds come from four continents to breed, rest, or feed in the refuge.

Half of Alaska's polar bears den there, and it is home to muskoxen, wolves, and Dall sheep. Conservationists estimate that about 130 migrating species pass through Area 1002, in addition to species that make their home in the refuge full time.

Conservation Not Extraction

The NRDC and other environmental groups argue that conservation, not extraction, is a more responsible way to deal with the energy problem. Average fuel efficiency standards for new cars, SUVs, and light trucks have not been increased in nearly a decade. The NRDC argues that by raising the standards from 24 to 39 miles per gallon over the next decade, 51 billion barrels of oil would be saved.

Opinion polls show that most Americans are opposed to drilling in ANWR. The Democrats have introduced their own bill prohibiting drilling, and the early stages of the titanic battle are being fought on the editorial pages of newspapers, as well as in the halls of Congress over the last great wilderness.

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