July 29, 2008

Oil Prices Changing Minds on Drilling in ANWR

By Scott Canon

ARCTIC NATIONAL WILD-LIFE REFUGE, Alaska - This place is a Zen thing. The only way to tell you've wandered in is the absence of anything saying so.

No signs. No road to get here. No advice from government stewards about what to seek out or what to avoid. No entrance fees and no officially licensed T-shirt.

This isn't just wilderness, contend those who want to keep it pristine, but a sanctuary for wildness.

It is also oil country. With just the last half of the last year of the petroleum-friendly Bush administration remaining, the window for opening the land to drilling could be about to close. Yet $4 gasoline and a sluggish economy have made Americans friendlier to the idea of pumping from the Arctic wilderness.

Republican congressional candidates recently staged a fact- finding trip to Alaska to showcase the possibility of an untapped domestic oil bounty. President Bush is pushing again for exploration in ANWR. The oil industry continues to point to expansion on Alaska's north slope as a way to decrease dependence on imported energy.

Those calling for drilling say oil development would barely touch ANWR, disturbing just 2,000 acres of a 19.2 million-acre outback. Exploration would not tromp on the spectacular Brooks Range mountains or their scenic foothills. Rather, it would be limited to the pancake-flat coastal plain along the Arctic Ocean.

While their argument has not triumphed during decades of appeals - the refuge has become ground zero in the ongoing fight between environmentalists and the oil industry - they sense a shift.

"Public outrage over energy prices before an election can be a powerful thing," said Roger Herrera, a spokesman for the pro- drilling group Arctic Power. "It can move some politicians."

Opponents of drilling in the refuge - they object to the common ANWR acronym as a denuding device - concede that the coastal plain might not be as photogenic as other parts of Alaska. Still, they say, it is a critical part of the larger ecosystem.

Mosquitoes, thick enough in June and July to kill an adult caribou, send large mammals down to the breezes of the coast for relief. Predators such as grizzly bears and wolf packs follow the caribou. Shore birds rely on the coastline for nesting. Musk oxen, foxes and weasels wander from mountain valleys to coastal flatlands.

"Not all habitats are created equal," said Eleanor Huffines, the Alaska director of the Wilderness Society. "You need all kinds, [and] the rest of the coast is being leased and being drilled."

A change would open more than 100 miles of Alaskan coastline to drilling, meaning leases on more than half of the state's northern shore. Efforts to tap into the oil potential of the land go back before it was established as a refuge. The debate has not stopped since.

On Dec. 6, 1960, the U.S. Interior Department set aside most of the land by administrative caveat "for the purpose of preserving unique wildlife, wildness and recreational values" after a congressional effort to establish the refuge failed. Twenty years later, in 1980, Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska Lands Act into law, expanding the refuge and meaning it would take an act of Congress to open the land to drilling.

In the past 15 years, the House of Representatives has passed bills 10 times that would have opened ANWR to drilling. The Senate went along in 1995, but Bill Clinton vetoed the measure.

Through the Bush years, the Senate has been the chief obstacle for alternative energy projects.

"It's still a long road," said Steve Hansen, a GOP spokesman on the House Natural Resources Committee, where Rep. Don Young of Alaska has long pushed for drilling. "Right now, the chances for opening ANWR for drilling are better than they have been for years."

Would more drilling in Alaska move prices at the pump? Barely, some experts suggest.

Geologists, however, believe much could be retrieved from the new petroleum frontier. Oil worth at least $1 trillion likely sits below the refuge. It could add 27 million gallons of gasoline and diesel to the daily U.S. supply, or an increase of 20 percent of domestic production. Over the estimated 30-year life of the oil field, drilling could deliver between 5 billion and 20 billion barrels of oil.

Yet if drilling were OK'd today, the government estimates that it still might take 10 years before oil began to flow. At its peak, the coastal oil field might pump just 1 million of the 87 million barrels of oil harvested daily worldwide.

Energy Information Administration estimates suggest that ANWR drilling could cut U.S. imports to about two-thirds of its oil - rather than 70 percent - and that gas prices might drop a penny or two a gallon. Even that change could be wiped out if Saudi Arabia alone curtailed its production slightly to account for a global increase in production.

The president, though, sees more relief.

"It would likely mean lower gas prices," he said in a recent news conference. "This is a litmus-test issue for many in Congress. Somehow, if you mention ANWR, it means you don't care about the environment."

Barack Obama, like most prominent Democrats, is strictly opposed to the drilling. Republican John McCain has even objected to the ANWR acronym, saying that "if we found oil in the Grand Canyon, I wouldn't be in favor of drilling there. This is a refuge."

Yet oil is critical to the U.S. economy. Herrera, of the pro- drilling Arctic Power group, said the country's real need for energy must be balanced against what he sees as a slight impact on the environment.

"You can go farther west on the northern slope of Alaska and find a giant caribou herd that is untouched," he said. "Things go up and down anyway, without the impact of man."

Those opposed to drilling say its pristine nature would be fouled by oil exploration, even if the ecological disturbance were minor.

Even if caribou numbers don't decline - they actually rose around Prudhoe Bay with the construction of the Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s - the herds might become more tame and accustomed to humans.

Roger Kaye helps manage ANWR for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is the author of "Last Great Wilderness." In researching the establishment of the refuge, Kaye came to believe that it represents something quintessentially American.

"This was meant to be an adventuring ground," he said. "It's a place for looking at how the world was before man changed it."

Visitors can simply drink from a refuge stream and think nothing of the consequences. They can safely expect that other humans won't interrupt their solitude. Ultimately, nothing but their limbs and wits can carry them through any adventure the backcountry reveals.

In fact, there are no roads or trails on the mainland section of the refuge. The only development is on the Inupiat village on the island of Kaktovik. Elsewhere, visitors must hike in - practical at only one spot where a highway roams near - or hire a bush pilot to fly them in. Fish and Wildlife employees deliberately don't make recommendations on trips, assign names to natural landmarks or otherwise try to civilize the place.

"Wildness," Kaye said, "is part of the American mind."

Originally published by McClatchy Newspapers.

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