By Adam M. Roberts
The United States Fish & Wildlife Service's (USFWS) brochure on Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) notes that it "is a vast and beautiful wilderness" that is unique "because the systems are whole and undisturbed, functioning as they have for centuries, largely free of human control and manipulation." All that could change if President Bush, powerful United States Senators and the exploiting forces of the entrenched oil and gas industry have their way.
In support of President Bush's plan to open up ANWR's coastal plain to drilling, Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski (R) has introduced the 370-page "National Energy Security Act of 2001." Included in the bill is a provision authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to establish a competitive land leasing program to facilitate "the exploration, development, and production of the oil and gas resources" of the northeastern area of ANWR.
A fierce battle over oil drilling in the refuge is bubbling up as Senator Joe Lieberman (D, CT) has introduced competing legislation to protect ANWR. According to Lieberman, opening ANWR "would immeasurably and irreversibly damage one of the last preserves of its kind in the world." Senator John Kerry (D, MA) has promised a filibuster of any attempt to open ANWR to oil and gas exploration. Kerry said, "On this issue, there is no legislative compromise which wouldn't compromise our commitment to the environment."
But Democrats are not the only ones defending the Refuge; after all, it was a Republican President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who initially established this protected area of Alaska in 1960. One organization, Republicans for Environmental Protection (REP), notes, "We can have affordable energy without disturbing a spectacularly beautiful land with oil drilling and all its fumes, noise and toxic waste." REP continues: "We all know the oil industry has a terrible environmental record. The Prudhoe Bay oil complex emits more pollution than Washington, DC. Oil spills, gas flaring, gravel mining, vehicle traffic, toxic waste…the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would be changed forever." Moreover, as reported by the Environmental News Service: "According to a 1998 US Geological Survey study there is a 50 percent chance of finding, at most, a nine month supply of oil in the Arctic Refuge, which would take about ten years to enter the domestic market."
In the misguided quest for oil in this area, wild species and their habitat could potentially be ruined forever. The refuge is home to 45 species of mammals including gray wolves, arctic foxes, lynx, moose, caribou, walrus, seals, endangered bowhead and other whales, and bears. Bird species, 180 of them, thrive there as well: threatened Steller's eiders, red-throated loons, tundra and trumpeter swans, Canada and snow geese, harlequin ducks, hawks, bald and golden eagles, peregrine falcons, sandhill cranes, American golden-plovers and snowy and other owls. (For a full list of wildlife in the refuge, go to http://arctic.fws.gov/wildlife.html)
The USFWS notes that the area of the Refuge in question "is critically important to the ecological integrity of the whole Arctic refuge, providing essential habitats for numerous internationally important species such as the Porcupine Caribou herd and polar bears." On March 20, 2001, over 500 scientists and natural resource managers sent a letter to President Bush recognizing "the importance of maintaining the biological diversity and ecosystem integrity of our nation's Arctic" and urging him to protect permanently the "wilderness character of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from future oil and gas development." In the coming months we will find out whether Congress will blindly pursue the shortsighted, imprudent quest for oil in ANWR, doing irreparable harm to one of the last great, pristine wildernesses in America.
Photo: Caribou live in arctic regions of Alaska and Canada. Oil and gas development on their calving grounds and migration routes jeopardize the herds. The USFWS notes, "Pregnant caribou, and females with young calves, are especially sensitive to disturbances such as the presence of humans, vehicles and sounds," all components of oil exploration. (USFWS)