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Analysis: The debate over drilling in America's wildest refuge
ARCTIC NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Alaska (CNN)-- Last week I spent some time with Fran Mauer and Anne Morkill during their four-day hike through a small section of the central mountain region of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the nation's largest and certainly its wildest, located in the remote northeast corner of Alaska.
Working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mauer and Morkill were conducting their annual survey of Dall sheep in the sector, tallying 363 of them grazing on steep slopes and peaks -- a tiny fragment of the dazzling spectacle of wildlife there.
Covering nearly 20 million acres, the Arctic Refuge is almost as large as South Carolina. With a full range of arctic and subarctic habitats, it shelters the greatest variety of plant and animal life of any protected area in the circumpolar north, including 180 bird species from four continents, grizzlies and polar bears, Dall sheep, muskoxen and wolves. Its northern coastal plain is the calving ground for the Porcupine Caribou Herd, more than 130,000 animals that migrate 400 miles into the plain every year -- a wildlife pageant that has earned the refuge the title of "America's Serengeti."
An unscathed wilderness
After many years of field work in the refuge, Mauer has lost none of the awe-struck reverence he felt when he first arrived. "This place is one of the last, best, complete natural ecosystems on the planet," he told me, "and it's the only one we have in America, the only natural wild spot in the Arctic that has not been impacted already by oil development. And if we lose that character, that's forever."
I also camped for a few days on a gravel bar on a bend in the Huluhula, a twisted, glacier-fed river running north to the coastal plain and the Arctic Ocean. I had joined John Weaver, a senior biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, who was rafting down the river on his own wildlife survey. "It's a fallacy," said Weaver, "to think that the oil and gas on this refuge would solve our so-called energy problem."
Like Mauer and Weaver, many conservationists are worried that rising oil prices and political pressures could cause permanent, irreversible changes in this protected area. Since it was created 20 years ago, the refuge has been dogged by demands for development of oil and gas deposits in a zone of its coastal plain covering 1.5 million acres that has not yet been designated as wilderness.
Opening the Arctic Refuge to drilling has substantial support in Congress. Five years ago President Clinton vetoed a budget rider that would have allowed it. This year a similar Senate bill was blocked in committee, but Alaska's senators vow to keep trying. It's an issue that will not go away.
A tempting prize for oilmen
No one really knows how much oil could be extracted from the Arctic Refuge, but the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that about 3.2 billion barrels is a realistic figure for economic production. On the basis of that estimate, experts calculate that in ten years, when refuge fields could start producing, their output might reduce imported oil from 68 percent of U.S. consumption to about 64 percent -- an amount conservationists argue would certainly not make much difference in U.S. oil security.
Of course, the value of oil in the refuge -- the amount that could be economically produced -- would increase if oil prices climb higher. The USGS estimates that the amount of oil that technology could pump from the refuge is between 5.7 billion to 16 billion barrels. The lower end of that estimate would cover not much more than six months of U.S. oil consumption, but at the higher end the refuge starts to look like a massive oil bonanza and an irresistible prize for Alaska and the oil industry.
Ninety-five percent of Alaska's oil-rich North Slope is already available for oil and gas drilling, but developers see the 5 percent in the refuge as a natural extension of the oilfields concentrated on Prudhoe Bay to the west. And they say with new technology they can explore and drill with minimal impact on the environment, causing no major disturbance to wildlife -- a claim hotly contested by conservationists.
More than 30 years of oil and gas development on the North Slope are a good indication of the consequences to be expected if drilling is allowed in the refuge. The expanding network of roads, pipelines, drilling pads and other facilities and operations would have a cumulative impact. According to one report by critics of drilling, "No matter how well done, oil development would industrialize a unique, wild area that is the biological heart of the Arctic Refuge."
There's special concern for the Porcupine caribou herd. During calving season the cows are extremely skittish, avoiding any possible threats. Biologists say oil development would create a "barrier effect," displacing caribou into areas with less forage and more harassment from insects and predators, causing higher calf mortality and an unavoidable drop in the population of the herd.
'Where life begins'
Any threat to the caribou is a threat to the people who have always depended on them for survival. That's why the Gwich'in Indians are opposed to any oil development in the refuge. Living in 14 villages along the Porcupine herd's migration route, some 7,000 Gwich'in maintain a traditional culture linked to caribou meat, skins and bone tools. According to Sara James, a Gwich'in leader, "If it wasn't for caribou, our culture and our people would have died off a long time ago."
For the Gwich'in, the calving ground of the Porcupine herd is a sacred place. "The name for it in our language means 'That's where life begins,'" James told me. "And it's not only for the caribou and the Gwich'in," she added. "It's also for the birds and ducks that fly up there to nest and for the fish that spawn there, and the polar bears and grizzlies and wolves and wolverines that den in the foothills there. All that is important to this whole ecosystem that still works, and we want to keep it that way."
The Gwich'in are united in their opposition to oil development, but neighboring Inupiat Eskimos on the North Slope are more divided on the issue. Inupiat leaders oppose offshore drilling that could disturb bowhead whales and other sea resources that are the basis of their subsistence culture. But they support development on the coastal plain, for straightforward economic reasons.
Herman Aishanna, an Inupiat supervisor for public works in Kaktovik village, told me that North Slope oil revenues are already declining, and new sources of tax money and jobs must be found. "We're very remote here," he said. "We've got lots of children going to school, and they will need employment. We've got to change, no matter what. We're not worried about the caribou or pollution. They'll find some way to make it safe."
But many others believe the only safe approach is to bar any oil development whatsoever in the refuge. Sitting next to me at the campfire, John Weaver said that's the way he feels. "The coastal plain of the refuge is only a tiny fraction of the entire North Slope of Alaska," he argued, waving his hand in a wide arc. "All we're asking for is preserving this very small corner for the long term, either as a wilderness or perhaps as a national monument."
Many would consider it a reasonable request, but there are strong economic and political forces against it. Oil interests claim the Clinton administration is in fact planning to declare the Arctic Refuge as a national monument off-limits to oil development. If so, it would be a major part of Clinton's environmental legacy and a political bombshell with the Arctic Refuge at the center.
Gary Strieker is CNN's global environmental correspondent.
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