Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Arctic National WildLife Refuge

A Special Report

Norman Chance


For more than a decade, debate over drilling for oil on the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge [ANWR] has continued unabated. This proposal, urged by the oil companies and supported by most Alaskan government officials, has drawn full scale opposition from powerful private environmental organizations representing millions of members thoughout the United States. The area's Inupiat Eskimo and Gwich'in Athabaskan-speaking Indian inhabitants are actively involved in the debate as well, their particular views significantly shaped by the nature of their relationship to the economy, the land, and its natural resources. Since the U.S. Congress carries legislative responsibility for actions pertaining to the Refuge, it must decide whether or not to open the coastal plain for possible oil development.

The essence of the conflict lies in two facts: One, the possibility that the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge contains one of the best remaining prospects for significant oil discovery in the United States; the other, that the Refuge contains some of the last true remaining 'wilderness' in the country. It also provides a habitat for the Porcupine Caribou Herd - one of the largest in the world with over 150,000 animals. This herd, whose calving grounds reside on the tundra of the Refuge, is an important means of subsistence for the region's indigenous inhabitants.

The basic argument of the oil industry is that less than 1 percent of the Refuge (12,700 acres on the coastal plain) will be affected by oil drilling and production. Rising oil imports also presents a threat to U.S. national security. And finally, new oil production in the Refuge will not only raise the U.S. gross national product by many billions of dollars. It will also significantly increase employment nationwide.

As to the likelihood of obtaining commercially viable deposits, a 1980s Department of Interior report estimated that the possibility of finding a total of 3.4 billion barrels of oil in the region is one in five, rather good odds given the potential of high return. If a discovery is made soon, say by the year 2005, the field could reach peak output of 800,000 barrels a day - 10 percent of all U.S. production. More recently, a U.S. Geological Survey report estimated that there is a 5 percent likelihood of finding 5.15 billion barrels of oil in the Refuge, and a 95 percent chance of finding 148 million barrels of oil - a projection substantially lower than their 1989 estimate of a possible maximum amount of 11.67 billion barrels of oil (5 percent likelihood) and the minimum projected amount of 697 million barrels (95 percent likelihood). This latest government figure is being challenged by those supporting oil development as overly conservative.

The counter argument of environmental organizations is that oil is a nonrenewable resource. Once oil and gas is extracted from the land, it will be gone forever. And if the government's national security objective is to limit reliance on foreign oil imports and create a sustainable long-range energy policy, there are better ways of achieving it - such as improving the fuel efficiency of motor vehicles. Holding relatively constant the production of automobiles, they state that a gradual change in fuel economy standards from the present 27.5 miles per gallon to 40 mpg will reduce demand by two million barrels a day by the year 2005 - far more than can be produced in the same period by extracting oil from the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge.

The indigenous population most apprehensive about oil development in the Refuge are the 7,000 inland-dwelling Gwich'in Athabascan Indians of northeastern Alaska and northwestern Canada. What they fear most is that such an enterprise will disrupt the Porcupine caribou calving grounds resulting in a serious loss of their most important subsistence food.

The Inupiat Eskimo are coastal dwellers that derive many of their subsistence foods from the sea. While they also worry about possible threats to the Porcupine herd from the proposed drilling of oil, they stand to gain sustantially from the leasing of their potentially rich coastal land to the oil companies. Concerns such as these can easily heighten conflicts between those northern Natives who rely on hunting and fishing for much of their daily sustenance, and those who look to oil-generated wage employment as their most important means of economic livelihood.

The Gwich'in's opposition to drilling in the Refuge also strain relations with non-Native Alaskans who perceive their jobs and standard of living to be closely linked to the continued production of North Slope oil.

Nor are frictions limited to the interplay of multinational oil companies, environmental oganizations, and indigenous peoples. Conflicts also exist between various departments of the national, state, and local governments. For example, within the US government itself, the Department of Interior's Mineral Management Service enables oil and gas development through their leasing enterprises. At the same time, another another agency, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is committed to protecting the fauna and other renewable resources within its jurisdiction.

Similar strains are found between the federal and state governments. While the federal government is a major owner of potential petroleum-producing property in Alaska, its revenue needs are only minimally tied to these lands. Thus, its perspective on oil extraction is more likely to address national energy levels, international trade, and foreign policy issues.

For the state of Alaska, on the other hand, the revenue base is intimately related to oil. The Prudhoe Bay field, the largest single accumulation of oil ever discovered in North America, is located on lands owned by the state. In the fifteen years following that discovery in 1968, the proportion of the state budget utilizing petroleum revenues has risen from an annual average of about 12 percent to more than 90 percent; and it remains extremely high today at approximately 85 percent.

Still, whether the focus is political or economic, both the national and Alaska state governments have an important commitment to develop mineral resources and assist those corporations extracting them -- for revenues and employment from such companies are central to each government's financial welfare. Thus, given the present condition of the U.S. economy , it is hardly surprising that the issue of extracting oil from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has again become an arena of crucial debate within Congress and the United States at large.

What follows in this Special Report is a description of the Refuge and its future as seen by the conflicting parties in the controversy. The designers of ArcticCircle hope that the airing of these differing perspectives will assist the viewer in deciding what action should be taken in shaping the future of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - and by whom. At the conclusion of the Report, you will also have an opportunity to share your comments with other ArcticCircle members in an electronic forum. Finally, those wishing to become actively involved can contact one or more of the organizations listed in the concluding remarks.


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