THE fight over oil exploration in Alaska could turn into one of
the major environment-versus-the-economy struggles of the 104th
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
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
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
"The simple fact is, if the US wants to increase its domestic
supply of energy, we need to open up those areas that hold the
greatest promise for finding new reserves of oil," Mobil
Corporation said in newspaper and magazine ads last year. …