Listening to Alaska
There are a lot of views on the issue floating around out there, but it seems one group's voice has not been heard nearly enough. Really, how many of us have paid attention to the opinions coming from the 49th state itself?
One recent article in the Chicago Tribune tackled the Alaskan viewpoint, reporting that 80 percent of the state's current annual revenue comes from oil production. Without oil, many Alaskans claim they would essentially have no economy. This modern reliance on oil really took off with the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968. The find prompted the creation of the Alaska National oil pipeline, which began pumping oil in 1977. Gold, lumber, fishing and defense installations - all industries that used to be popular in the state - have lost much of their prominence, and oil reigns supreme as the biggest revenue generator.
And oil certainly is a booming business for Alaska. Because of copious oil profits, there is no state income tax or sales tax. Furthermore, nearly all residents of Alaska reap the profits in another way: they receive an annual check from the state - last year worth $1,900 - to share in the wealth. While most of those interviewed by the Tribune said they do not depend on the annual checks, which will coincidentally be lower this year due to drops in the stock market, they do not want to see them end either. They see the long-term economic future tied to oil, and when Prudhoe Bay runs dry, they'd like to have ANWR there for security.
Obviously, drilling creates jobs, as well. An economic analysis done by Wharton Economics Forecasting Associates says that development of oil reserves in the portion of the ANWR being considered for drilling - the Costal Plain - could create as many as 736,000 new domestic U.S. jobs, benefiting workers in every state.
Like many Alaskans, Tim Tyler, a 23-year veteran of the oil effort who works at Deadhorse, a camp at the beginning of the Alaska National Pipeline on the coast of the Arctic Ocean, feels that the economic opportunities justify the drilling. He told the Tribune, "Sure, it's a selfish reason. But it's jobs."
Most opponents aren't contesting the fact that drilling will create new jobs and help Alaska's economy. They are, however, saying that opening up the Costal Plain will only exacerbate the state's dependence on oil and abandon a vow to preserve the environmental sanctity of the 19 million-acre refuge. Many environmental groups (including some that are Alaska-based) have expressed extreme disapproval of the drilling. For example, on the Alaska Wilderness League's Web site (www.alaskawild.org), the environmental group raises concerns that many other anti-drilling groups share. The league calls the ANWR, "the crown jewel of America's National Wildlife Refuge System," claiming the area is now "in grave danger of being destroyed by those seeking whatever oil might lie beneath its fragile tundra."
In his book of essays, Arctic Refuge: A Circle of Testimony, former President Jimmy Carter writes, "The simple fact is, drilling is inherently incompatible with wilderness." He continues on, claiming, "The roar alone of road building, drilling, trucks and generators would pollute the wild music of the Arctic and be as out of place there as it would be in the heart of Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon."
Supporters say that the environmentalists and the media have distorted the issue by portraying the entire refuge as beautiful when, in fact, the arctic desert of the Coastal Plain is quite charmless, desolate and even unpleasant. Located at the northeastern tip of the Alaska where temperatures can drop as low as 40 below zero F, the Costal Plain is barren and frozen for nine months of the year and has been described by some as a vast wasteland. A recent article in the Anchorage Daily News, a newspaper that has accused "environmental zealots" of treating Alaska like "a national zoo," claims, "Much of the nation has yet to experience anything like a reality check on the mythical Arctic Serengeti."
Drilling supporters also want to make it clear that the Costal Plain is not completely pristine wilderness. Arctic Power, an Alaska-based organization favoring oil drilling, reports that a community, Kaktovik, exists in the Costal Plain, and military installations operate in there now and have in the past.
Another commonly misunderstood fact, say those for ANWR drilling, is the size of the area proposed for drilling. Alaskans on both sides of the issue, the Tribune reports, have expressed their irritation with a political fight over a remote, relatively small region of the state that most Americans - and most Alaskans - never will see. To put it in perspective, in the entire state of Alaska, the federal government owns 240 million acres, or 65 percent of the state. Of this land, 150 million acres (40% of the state's land) are protected in national parks, refuges and forests. Another 57 million acres (16% of the state's land) is designated formally as Wilderness, a restriction that prevents any development and virtually all human use. Now, the total area of the ANWR is 19.6 million acres. The area of the Costal Plain is 1.5 million acres, or about 8 percent of the ANWR. So, out of the 240 million acres the government owns, only 0.006 percent would be affect by the proposed Costal Plain drilling.
Furthermore, with today's technology, the oil industry has promised that it can tap the oil reserves under the 1.5-million Costal Plain acres from an area that is about 2,000 acres big. To make sure they keep their word, the House approved an amendment to limit the area of the Coastal Plain that could be disturbed by development to 2,000 acres. Drilling supporter Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles points out that this means that the footprint of oil activities will affect less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the entire refuge.
Another major concern of environmentalists is that the oil drilling will destroy the wildlife that lives in the area. The Alaska Wilderness League alleges that "drilling here would be a disaster for the Porcupine caribou, polar bears, musk oxen and other wildlife who depend on this pristine habitat," as well as for native peoples who depend on the land.
To address such legitimate concerns, Knowles points back to Prudhoe Bay oil field as an example. "The Central Arctic Caribou Herd occupying the Prudhoe Bay area has grown steadily from a population of 6,000 in 1978, the year after North Slope oil production began, to over 27,000 today. The Inupiat people of the North Slope who depend on the caribou for subsistence are among the strongest supporters of Coastal Plain oil development," he wrote.
Many Alaskans resent the federal government and the attitudes of Americans who don't live there. The mere 626,000 people in the nation's most sparsely populated state feel as they're being ignored.
"It's just outsiders and tree-huggers mouthin' off. They don't know anything," Jennie Wodkowski, a clerk at a small grocery store in Willow, a village on the northern route to Denali State Park, told the Tribune. "Oil's important. We don't have anything else going on here."
"I can't understand why they want to control everything. Unless, of course, they want to kick us out," Toni Bowley, who has lived in Alaska for 34 years and runs a general store in Sunshine, said to the Tribune. "We feel like a pawn in this. They don't really care what we think."
Bowley said she thinks there is more oil in ANWR than surveys indicate and that drilling could be done with extremely minimal environmental damage. But she wants further testing "before they start poking holes and creating problems."
However, neither the amount of oil nor the predictions of environmental impact is certain, making the debate sticky. The U.S. Department of Interior surveys say there could be up to 16 billion barrels of recoverable oil - almost twice the amount projected from Prudhoe Bay - in the Costal Plain. President Bush has expressed hope that increasing domestic drilling will reduce the amount of oil being imported. Approx-imately 52 percent of the oil Americans consumed last year was brought over from foreign countries, up from 37 percent in 1980. Alaska is second only to Texas in the production of oil, and the 1968 oil discovery off Prudhoe Bay was the biggest strike in U.S. history. And since Bush scaled back a proposal to drill in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and California said no to offshore drilling, the spotlight on Alaska has intensified, reports the Tribune.
Some in the state think we really need to make sure new drilling is necessary before embarking on an irreversible course. After all, Prudhoe Bay deposits are not showing any signs of drying up, and the Department of the Interior approved oil drilling in the 23-million acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska three years ago. "The issue is whether we need it," Orlon Hanson, a tour guide at an oil production facility, commented on the ANWR debate to the Tribune. "I don't think drilling [ANWR] is worth it, not without permanently marring the land."
Whatever opinion each Alaskan espouses, most just seem to want to have their voice heard since it's their backyard in which the drilling will commence. Mike Carpenter, a retired postmaster in the village of Trapper Creek is one such Alaskan. He told the Tribune, "They come up here and tell us what to do with our oil. That's like me telling a pregnant woman how to have a baby."
Alaska Sidebar: Top 10 Reasons to Support Development in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge1. Only 8 Percent of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) Would Be Considered for Exploration - Only the 1.5 million acre or 8 percent on the northern coast of ANWR is being considered for development. The remaining 17.5 million acres or 92 percent of ANWR will remain permanently closed to any kind of development. If oil is discovered, less than 2,000 acres of the over 1.5 million acres of the Coastal Plain would be affected.
2. Revenues to the State and Federal Treasury - Federal revenues would be enhanced by billions of dollars from bonus bids, lease rentals, royalties and taxes. Estimates in 1995 on bonus bids alone were $2.6 billion.
3. Jobs To Be Created - Between 250,000 and 735,000 jobs are estimated to be created by development of the Coastal Plain.
4. Economic Impact - Between 1980 and 1994, North Slope oil field development and production activity contributed over $50 billion to the nations economy, directly impacting each state in the union.
5. America's Best Chance for a Major Discovery - The Coastal Plain of ANWR is America's best possibility for the discovery of another giant Prudhoe Bay-sized oil and gas discovery in North America. U.S. Department of Interior estimates range from 9 to 16 billion barrels of recoverable oil.
6. North Slope Production in Decline - The North Slope oil fields currently provide the U.S. with nearly 25 percent of it's domestic production and since 1988 this production has been on the decline. Peak production was reached in 1980 of two million barrels a day, but has been declining to a current level of 1.4 million barrels a day.
7. Imported Oil Too Costly - The U.S. imports over 55 percent of the nation's needed petroleum. These oil imports cost more than $55.1 billion a year (this figure does not include the military costs of protecting that imported supply). These figures are rising and could exceed 65 percent by the year 2005.
8. No Negative Impact on Animals - Oil and gas development and wildlife are successfully coexisting in Alaska's arctic. For example, the Central Arctic Caribou Herd (CACH) at Prudhoe Bay has grown from 3,000 to as high as 23,400 during the last 20 years of operation. In 1995, the Central Arctic Caribou Herd size was estimated to be 18,100 animals.
9. Arctic Technology - Advanced technology has greatly reduced the footprint of arctic oil development. If Prudhoe Bay were built today, the footprint would be 1,526 acres, 64 percent smaller.
10. Alaskans Support - More than 75 percent of Alaskans favor exploration and production in ANWR. The Inupiat Eskimos who live in and near ANWR support onshore oil development on the Coastal Plain.
This list was compiled by Arctic Power, Anchorage, Alaska, a grassroots, non-profit citizen's organization founded to expedite congressional and presidential approval of oil exploration and production within the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Alaska congressional delegation, Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles and the 20th Alaska Legislature have endorsed Arctic Power and work closely with the board and staff of the organization. Arctic Power and the state of Alaska work together in their congressional outreach efforts in Washington and across the nation.