Rigs or Wilderness?

By Carter, Tom | Insight on the News, October 23, 2000 | Go to article overview

Rigs or Wilderness?


Carter, Tom, Insight on the News


The lines are drawn in Alaska for an epic battle over drilling for oil in the arctic refuge: Eskimos vs. Indians, oil companies vs. environmentalists and George W. Bush vs. Al Gore.

Snug in their wolverine and caribou-lined parkas, the women laugh and chat as they peel the skin from a 300-pound bearded seal, the first one killed this season. "We haven't had much fresh meat this year," says Fenton Rexford, one of the best hunters in Kaktovik, a community of 286 Inupiat Eskimos on the shore of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. "I didn't get a caribou yet." As head of the Kaktovik Inupiat Corp., however, Rexford has more on his mind than fresh meat. He is as versed in the economics of petroleum as in the art of hunting, and he is well-aware of the oil that may lie below his feet.

Drawing on his cigarette and looking out across the refuge, he raffles off statistics: Nearly $2 a gallon for gasoline in the lower 48 states, heating oil prices twice what they were a year ago and U.S. inventories at the lowest point since 1976. With the United States more dependent than ever on foreign oil -- much of it from neighboring Canada -- he finds it incomprehensible that his people are prevented from drilling on the 92,000 acres of Eskimo land. "We don't even have sewer and water," he says. "The future for these kids here is pretty bleak unless they let us drill for oil on our lands."

Some 150 wiles to the south in Arctic Village, the Athabascan Indians of the Gwich'in tribe see the situation differently. In their minds, oil exploration is a mortal threat to the survival of the caribou on which their people have depended for thousands of years. "The coastal plain is the sacred birthing grounds of our caribou," says Norma Kassi, an activist from Old Crow, Canada, who travels the world lobbying to keep the arctic refuge closed. "If that is violated, our people will die. Caribou is our life." She and others are making an impassioned plea to President Clinton to cut off any possibility of drilling by declaring the refuge a national monument.

President Carter signed the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), just days before leaving office. In a stroke of his pen, he set aside one-third of Alaska, protecting 104 million acres as national parks and national wildlife refuges. Environmentalists hailed ANILCA as a monumental victory, but many Alaskans referred to it as "the biggest federal landgrab in history."

Twenty years later, the argument still rages over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an area the size of South Carolina that stretches from the coastal plain to the forested south slope of the Brooks Range. The refuge designation permits the harvesting of natural resources where it's compatible with the refuge's purpose, and many have been opened to lumbering and oil production. (Of the arctic refuge's 19.8 million acres, 8 million are designated as "wilderness," which means there can be no development of any kind.) Congress, noting the possibility of major oil reserves under the coastal plain, included in the ANILCA legislation an item called Section 1002, which set aside 1.5 million acres along the northern coast for further study and possible development.

Until test drilling takes place in the region -- referred to locally as "Ten-oh-two" -- no one really knows what is there. But the potential is great. "The area contains the largest onshore, unexplored, potentially productive geologic basins in the United States," according to a Department of Energy assessment released in May. At best, according to the 1998 U.S. Geological Survey and the May 2000 update, the preserve created by Section 1002 may hold as much as 16 billion barrels of oil -- equivalent to almost five years of total U.S. imports. At the low end, the survey found the region could hold as little as 3 billion barrels, an amount, environmentalists note, equal to only five months total consumption for the United States. …

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