No horizon. In the distance, sky and tundra fade together into a blue-white wash. The Arctic landscape has a great many shades of white: the crystalline white of blown snow. The gray-green white of ice on the sea. The silver white of a fox's fur. The turquoise white in the northern sky an hour before the sun comes up in the south to illuminate another short winter's day.
White. Senator Frank Murkowski of Alaska, standing on the floor of the Senate last month, holding up a blank sheet of white paper. That, he says, is all you can see in winter on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain--just "snow and ice." So what could be wrong with drilling for oil in such a bleak, deserted region in the distant northeastern corner of Alaska? There is nothing there.
White. Evon Peter, a Gwich'in Native American from the southern fringes of the wildlife refuge, stands atop a hill and looks out over the whiteness. He starts naming it: "Vatr' agwaahgwail"--the line of a caribou trail. "Vatthaih ik"--Snowy Owl Mountain. "Shih han"--Brown Bear River. Each part of the landscape has a name and a story, often related to the caribou the Gwich'in depend on for food. As he speaks, the whiteness comes alive. "When I stand here, I feel I am free," says Peter, a staunch opponent of oil drilling. "Here nature is the only law."
That may be about to change. With two former oilmen in the White House, a Republican Congress calling for greater access to public lands out West, and high energy prices worrying consumers, America's last true wilderness is under attack. The 50-year-old debate over whether to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, known as ANWR(pronounced An-war), is shaping up as the defining environmental battle of the Bush presidency. For months, George W. Bush has spoken in favor of drilling for oil in the refuge. As rolling brownouts swept California, he argued that Alaskan oil exploration would keep the crisis from spreading--even though oil-fired generators produce just 1% of California's electricity.
Bush's energy-policy task force, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, had its first full meeting on ANWRlast Friday, and Bush and Cheney have made it clear that drilling there will top their list of recommendations. "I campaigned hard on the notion of having environmentally sensitive exploration at ANWR," Bush said last month, "and I think we can do so." Environmentalists counter that just as there is no way to be half-pregnant, there is no "sensitive" way to drill in a wilderness.
Later this month Murkowski plans to introduce a Senate bill calling for oil exploration in 1.5 million acres of the ANWR coastal plain, north of the Brooks Range and east of the Canning River--a section known as Area 1002. Murkowski's legislation, like the Bush recommendations that will follow it, faces stiff opposition in the evenly divided Senate, not just from Democrats but from a key bloc of at least eight Republicans--Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Bob Smith of New Hampshire, James Jeffords of Vermont, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois and Gordon Smith of Oregon--who have the power to defeat the bill. (Only three Democratic Senators, Louisiana's John Breaux and Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka, both of Hawaii, have come out so far in favor of drilling in the refuge.) Murkowski promises to attract antidrilling Senators to his cause. What remains unclear is how hard Bush intends to fight for oil exploration in the Arctic refuge. If ANWR is in the Bush energy bill, New Hampshire's Smith tells TIME, "it will be the lightning rod, and very good parts of the energy bill will be lost. I think it would be a mistake to have it in."
Smith and his fellow Republicans don't relish the idea of voting against their President--especially if Bush decides to make ANWR a test of party loyalty. But the legislators from environmentally conscious states also know the public remains troubled by the idea of drilling in the refuge. In the latest TIME/CNN poll, a majority of those surveyed, 52%, said they oppose drilling there, while 41% were in favor. Environmental groups, which argue that the oil deposits in question could amount to less than a six-month domestic supply (see box), are confident they can win this war. "If we have to have a first big battle, this is a good one to have," says Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club.
But big oil is also optimistic that it can push through a bill before oil prices come down and the sense of crisis abates. "We are in a window, which basically forces us to go flat out," says Roger Herrera, a 33-year veteran of British Petroleum who now lobbies for opening ANWR in Washington. "We'll use a range of arguments. National security, dependence on unreliable sources in the Middle East, cost of energy. The best way of winning is to make people concerned about the cost of filling up their gas tank. It will all be over by September."