THE fight over oil exploration in Alaska could turn into one of the major environment-versus-the-economy struggles of the 104th Congress.
In recent years, the oil industry and environmentalists have maintained an uneasy truce in Alaska. The industry knew it didn't have the votes in Congress to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, and activists didn't push too hard for permanent protection of a unique area biologists describe as "America's Serengeti."
But with a Republican-led Congress (including conservative Alaskans in charge of House and Senate committees dealing with natural resources), domestic oil production at its lowest point in 40 years, and oil imports now topping the 50-percent mark, that cease-fire is likely to be broken.
Pro-environment lawmakers last week announced legislation that would designate the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as wilderness, thereby putting it permanently off-limits to oil drilling.
"Wilderness designation of the plain is needed to prevent the destruction of this unique and fragile ecosystem," said Rep. Bruce Vento (D) of Minnesota, author of the House bill, which now has 65 co-sponsors. Wilderness area
While most supporters of protection for ANWR are Democrats, the author of a companion bill in the Senate is a Republican - William Roth of Delaware, who wrote the 1980 legislation that set aside 19 million acres in northeastern Alaska as a national refuge.
That original Alaska lands act designated all but 1.5 million acres of the refuge as wilderness, leaving out the 125-mile coastal plain. This meant that, although it would take an act of Congress, the plain could be open to development.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service has described the area as "the only conservation system unit in North America that protects, in an undisturbed condition, the complete spectrum of arctic and subarctic ecosystems." It is home to polar bears, musk oxen, wolves, Dall sheep, grizzly bears, moose, caribou, and millions of birds. The Porcupine caribou herd (named after the river across which it migrates each year) helps sustain some 7,000 native people in Canada and Alaska.
Industry and some federal government estimates put the amount of economically recoverable crude oil beneath the surface of ANWR at several billion barrels.
Pro-development interests say this could be an important source of high-paying jobs as well as add to national security.
For the first time in history, the US last year imported more than half of the oil it used. The federal Energy Information Agency predicts that 65 percent of US energy consumption in 2000 will come from …