For several decades, debate over whether to explore for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge [ANWR] has continued unabated. This possible exploration, urged by the oil companies and supported by most government officials in Alaska, has drawn full scale opposition of powerful private environmental organizations representing millions of members thoughout the United States. The area's Inupiat Eskimo and Gwich'in Athabaskan Indian inhabitants are intimately involved in the debate as well, their particular views largely shaped by the nature of their relationship to the land and its resources.
The essence of the conflict lies in two facts: One, the estimate that ANWR is one of the best remaining prospects for significant oil discovery in the United States. The other, that the reserve contains some of the last true remaining wilderness in the country. Since the U.S. Congress is responsible for the refuge, it must decide whether or not to open up the coastal area for oil exploration.
Environmentally speaking, the oil industry's basic argument is that less than 1 percent of ANWR (12,700 acres on the coastal plain) will be damaged by oil drilling and production. The Department of Interior's report estimates the possibility of finding up to 3.4 million barrels of oil in the region is one in five, rather good odds given the potential of high return. If a discovery was 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.
The counter argument of the environmentalists is that oil is a nonrenewable resource. Once oil and gas is extracted from the land, it will be gone. 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, a gradual decrease in fuel economy standards from 27.5 miles per gallon to 40 mpg could reduce demand by two million barrels a day by the year 2005 - far more than could be produced in the same period by extracting oil from the coastal plain of ANWR.