for National Geographic News
Late last night the U.S. House of Representatives voted to allow oil drilling in an Alaska refuge as part an energy bill that will likely be approved today. To become law, the bill would then need to be passed by the Senate and signed by President Bush, who supports the drilling plan.
Long a focus of debate, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) may have billions of barrels of recoverable crude beneath its tundra. Drilling proponents say that ANWR's oil is needed to reduce energy prices and U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
Critics counter that the ANWR oil would not be available for at least a decade and would do little to ease energy woes. Conservationists argue that drilling would damage a wild landscape and its inhabitants, and that more efficient fuel use standards would do more to reduce foreign-oil dependency.
Over the next few weeks, as the Senate and House try to merge their budget bills into one, the emotionally charged issue will surface again.
"This battle has just begun," said Lydia Weiss of Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group. "Senators will have to cast at least one more vote on this before it passes, and those Senators who voted the wrong way on the amendment in March will certainly feel the heat from their constituents not to make the same mistake twice."
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge comprises some 19 million acres (8 million hectares)the size of South Carolinaand lies in the remote northeastern corner of Alaska.
To get there, you must fly, boat, or walk.
The refuge is an unbroken expanse of Arctic and sub-Arctic ecosystems, which for centuries have been largely untouched by humans.
An abundance of wildlife, able to withstand extreme environmental conditions, lives in the refuge. Polar bears, wolverines, musk oxen, and caribou roam the frozen grounds. Some 180 migratory and resident bird species have been observed in the refuge, and more than 30 species of fish live in the lakes and rivers.
Inupiat Eskimos have also survived in this harsh environment for generations. Their village is the only settlement in the wildlife refuge.
In 1980 U.S. President Jimmy Carter set aside 1.5 million acres (600,000 hectares) of the refuge's Arctic Coastal Plain for oil and gas exploration in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
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