Drilling Won't Make It Less of a Refuge

Senator Frank H. Murkowski (AK)
Washington Post Editorial

December 10, 2000 - During the presidential campaign, few issues were as starkly debated as the fate of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. George W. Bush said thatexploration for oil and gas should be allowed there, while Al Gore said it should be forbidden.

In September, former Interior Department lawyer Dennis Drabelle argued in an Outlook article that President Clinton should act to protect the refuge further. Here, Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) argues the case for allowing exploration to proceed.

Few people have visited the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Yet many environmental activists, along with Vice President Gore, are adamant that no oil or gas exploration should ever take place there.

They have been pressing President Clinton to designate the refuge as a national monument before he leaves office. They want this action even though Congress, under the 1980 legislation establishing the ANWR, is specifically given the responsibility for determining the future status of the coastal plain. Environmentalists often call this area "America's last true wilderness." Let's take a closer look.

All told, the ANWR consists of 19 million acres. Congress has put 8 million acres into formal wilderness status and designated 9.5 million acres as wildlife refuge. Those 17.5 million acres form a protected enclave almost as large as the state of South Carolina. It can never be developed, nor should it be.

In its wisdom, however, Congress set aside the remaining 1.5 million acres of the coastal plain for potential exploration and development because of its oil and gas. Before any exploration could occur, additional legislation had to be passed by Congress. That happened in 1995, but President Clinton vetoed the bill because, he said, the coastal plain was the biological heart of the ANWR and exploration or development would ruin the "pristine" area.

One should ask what his definition of "pristine" is. The coastal plain is host to a village of about 260 Inupiat natives on their 92,000 acres of land. The village of Kaktovik has housing, schools, stores, boats, an airstrip, power lines and a variety of other modern-day facilities, including an oil well. The U.S. military's Barter Island Distant Early Warning System radar site is also on the plain's shoreline.

Most of the residents of Kaktovik favor drilling in the coastal plain, as do more than 70 percent of Alaskans, according to recent polls. (A national survey conducted by the Christian Science Monitor in October showed that Americans support oil production in the ANWR, by a 54 to 36 percent margin.)

There are several other reasons the coastal plain is distinct from the rest of the ANWR. It is not part of the hills and mountains of the Brooks Range, where the environmentalists take their beautiful photos of the ANWR. It is a flat, treeless, almost featureless plain in northeastern Alaska that extends from the Brooks Range northward to the Beaufort Sea. There are times on the coastal plain when exposing human flesh to the elements would ensure death. The temperature can drop to -40 degrees Fahrenheit in January. Few animals can thrive in those temperatures.

Only five species of birds, some polar bears (who den on the Beaufort Sea pack ice) and lemmings (who burrow beneath the snow-pack) remain during the winter months. There are 56 days of total darkness during the year, and almost nine months of harsh winter.

The spring thaw comes in late May or early June. This increases the bird count and brings back the arctic fox and, most significantly, the Porcupine caribou. While only a portion of the caribou herd shows up each year, many environmental activists refer to the coastal plain as their traditional calving grounds. The females endure the conditions of the tundra for protection against most predators and for the cotton grass that will help to fatten their offspring.

The caribou travel to the coastal plain from Canada, passing near 89 dry wells drilled by the Canadian government and crossing Canada's Dempster Highway--all of which seems to be development that does not hinder theirmigration or survival.

Our only experiment with oil fields and caribou has taken place nearby on Alaska's North Slope in Prudhoe Bay. The Central Arctic caribou herd that inhabits part of Prudhoe Bay has grown from 6,000 in 1978 to 19,700 today, according to the most recent estimates by state and federal wildlife agencies.

In fact, there is some evidence that the caribou use un-vegetated and elevated sites such as river bars, mud flats, dunes, gravel pads and roads in the existing oil fields as relief habitat from mosquitoes and from oestrid flies that attack their nostrils. The 1995 legislation vetoed by President Clinton would have given the secretary of Interior the power to stop development and exploration during the summer months if there were any threat to the caribou.

Environmentalists also worry about the polar bear, though most biologists will tell you that the bears rarely den on land in this region, preferring the arctic ice. Alaska's polar bear population is healthy and unthreatened. The Marine Mammals Protection Act takes care of the polar bear in the existing oil fields--and would do the same on the coastal plain.

What do these protections mean to the oil workers in Prudhoe Bay? They are not allowed to harm a polar bear. There are steel cages around many of the doors of the facilities in Prudhoe. That way, workers can look off into the distance for bears before they venture out. No polar bear has been injured or killed as a result of extracting oil in Prudhoe Bay.

In fact, there are no listed endangered species on the North Slope or in the coastal plain. Alaskans have always trod lightly on the land and have honored the animals as a source of sustenance.

Those who would develop the coastal plain, including the oil companies, maintain they can do it on about 2,000 acres or less. Exploration and development is done in the harsh winter months, which allows the use of ice airstrips, ice roads and ice platforms. It is done when no caribou are present.

If the well is dry, it is capped. When the ice melts in late spring, there is little remaining evidence of the work--and minimal impact on the land.

The environmentalists say the trade-off isn't good enough to justify the development. In other words, they don't think there's enough oil there to warrant the exploration.

The U.S. Geological Survey and the federal government's Energy Information Administration estimate that there are possibly 16 billion barrels of oil beneath the surface in the coastal plain. Even at the low end--with about 3.2 billion barrels--the field would be the second-largest ever discovered in the United States.

The first is Prudhoe Bay, which was estimatedin 1968 to hold 9 billion barrels of oil, but which has produced nearly 13 billion barrels--or 20 to 25 percent of the oil produced in this nation for the last 23 years. If there were 16 billion barrels in the coastal plain, it would substitute for what we would otherwise have to import from Saudi Arabia for the next 30 years.

Will development of the coastal plain make us independent of foreign oil? No, but it can make us less dependent. My initial goal in current legislation is to take us from 58 percent dependence to less than 50 percent, through oil and gas development, conservation and renewable energy sources. Development of ANWR is not the only answer.

I applaud the development of alternative and renewable energy sources. But today this nation relies on conventional sources of energy for 96 percent of its power. We need a bridge to the energy future, and that bridge won't be built by ignoring the problem or accepting the rhetoric from the environmentalists.

Vice President Gore, on his campaign Web site, mentions a list of animals in ANWR that would be endangered by drilling, including Dall sheep and moose. But the coastal plain is not their habitat, and it would be rare to see either there: Dall sheep live in the mountains, and the moose live in the foothills.

The extreme environmentalists maintain that the coastal plain is the last 5 percent of the Arctic coastline that is not being drilled. That is nonsense. Only 14 percent of the entire 1,100-mile Arctic coastal plain is open to oil exploration.

The question is, do we develop 2,000 acres out of 19 million and still protect the caribou, the polar bear and all other species? Or do we keep our heads buried in the snow-pack along with the lemmings, Gore and Clinton?

Frank Murkowski is chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources

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