The 19.6 million acres of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—a largely untouched wonderland of caribou, musk oxen, polar bears, and buried petroleum—are again pitting environmentalists against oil developers.
President Bush’s 2001 proposal to open the refuge was narrowly squashed in the Senate. Surging oil prices and Republican victories in the fall elections suggest the plan may fare better this year, when the president is expected to try again. Petroleum companies are especially interested in a 1.5-million-acre swath along Alaska’s northeastern shore. In a 1998 study, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that federally owned lands in that region contain 4.3 billion to 11.8 billion barrels of recoverable oil, mostly spread out in small deposits. The biggest cache could contain 1 billion to 2 billion barrels—about three months of the country’s total oil consumption. “For the United States, that is very large,” says geologist Ken Bird of the U.S. Geological Survey, who led the study. “The largest oil accumulation discovered here in the last 20 years was only about 500 million barrels.”
Charles Clusen of the National Resources Defense Council argues that the Alaskan oil is not worth its environmental cost. “The coastal plain is the biological heart of the refuge. If you destroy it, you’ll harm the wildlife that inhabit the entirety of the refuge and beyond,” he says. The Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Fuel states that concentrating the drilling during the winter months, when the ground is frozen solid, would significantly limit the damage. But Clusen sees the Alaskan reserves as a “drop in the bucket” compared with what conservation could achieve: “If we required automobile owners to replace their used tires with ones as efficient as the tires that originally came on the car, we would save more oil than there is in the Arctic refuge.”