Arctic Oil Drilling Debate Escalates

Ben Spiess
Anchorage Daily News
May 7, 2001

ANCHORAGE, Alaska—The wind shivers across this expanse of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, chasing the snow before it in wafting white lace south toward the Brooks Range.

The coastal plain's hard beauty is exceptional, but it is what lies underneath that makes this place controversial: oil.

With anywhere from 5.7 billion to 16 billion barrels of oil, the coastal plain may hold the largest undeveloped onshore reserves in North America.

For Alaskans, the refuge debate is not a new one. What's changed is that for the first time since the massive Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, supporters of development see a real chance to open the refuge to oil exploration.

With a pro-development president and an emerging energy crisis, the long-simmering refuge debate has come to a full boil in the past year.

Oil supporters argue that the industry has refined its practices over 30 years of Arctic operations and that the coastal plain can be developed with minimal impact to the tundra and wildlife.

Opponents say that pipelines and production pads would permanently change the tundra, lead to oil spills and threaten caribou and other wildlife. Further, any development would alter the wild character of not only the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain but the entire 19.8 million-acre refuge.

Opening the refuge requires an act of Congress, and development would be limited to the flat coastal swath on the refuge's northern fringe.

The fight is fierce over what this remote Arctic plain should mean to America.

President Bush has made more domestic oil production a key part of his energy policy. And for large amounts of new oil in the United States, the Arctic refuge is one of the few places to look.

No people live on the protected coastal plain, although the village of Kaktovik, population 293, sits about three miles north. A city survey showed that 78 percent of Kaktovik residents support letting oil companies into the refuge.

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