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
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
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
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
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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