War Over Arctic Oil


    Beyond these mountains lies the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain, a magnificent battleground

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    For now the refuge is intact, with little more than 1,000 tourists visiting a year. Established by President Eisenhower in 1960 as America's last unspoiled frontier, the area contains large populations of caribou, moose, musk oxen, wolves, foxes, grizzlies and polar bears, along with loons, snow geese and many other species of migratory birds. It was doubled in size, to 19 million acres, by the Carter Administration in 1980. But at the same time, with millions of barrels of oil being extracted from neighboring Prudhoe Bay, Congress set aside 1.5 million acres along the coast of the refuge--the so-called Area 1002--to be investigated for its petroleum potential. In the most recent study, in 1998, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that there could be between 3 billion and 16 billion bbl. of oil in Area 1002. In 1989 the Senate Energy Committee was ready to authorize drilling when the Exxon Valdez disaster spilled almost 11 million gal. of oil, polluting more than 1,000 miles of Alaskan shoreline. The bill was shelved. Six years later, during the Newt Gingrich era, Republicans pushed another bill, but President Clinton vetoed it.

    To get an idea of what drilling for that oil would do to ANWR, it helps to visit Prudhoe Bay, America's largest oil field. Just beyond the western edge of the refuge, Prudhoe lights up the tundra for miles with megawatts of yellow industrial light. Steam belches from plants eight stories high; flames shoot from natural-gas flares; and bulldozers the size of houses grind back and forth along 500 miles of roads that link the 170 drilling sites along the coast. Five thousand men--and a few women--work here, pumping 1.3 million bbl. a day down the trans-Alaska pipeline. The scale of the facilities swallows them up, and the oil plants seem almost deserted.

    The oil industry has worked hard to clean up its act. New technologies allow wells to be clustered more closely together, with drilling done laterally below the surface--reducing the number of installations on the tundra. Pipelines are now built 5 ft. above the surface to allow animals to pass beneath. A truck leaking a pint of transmission fluid is treated as an oil spill, reported as such and laboriously cleaned up. Even so, there are limits. "Drilling for oil is an industrial process," concedes Ronnie Chappell, the main spokesman for BP Amoco on the North Slope. "Some things you can't get rid of--like pipelines." The oil industry by its very nature is rugged and intrusive.

    Thirty-five miles out on the tundra and 30[degrees] below zero, a seismic crew is at work, stringing out lines of microphones in front of a 56,000-lb. "thumper truck" that sends vibrations through the earth in search of oil pockets. These are the toughest jobs in the industry. The 94-man crew works and lives out of a mobile camp: 30 bright-orange mobile homes on steel skis, linked together in six trains. In a season they will cover 400 square miles. The men travel the North Slope in Sno-Cats with rubber tracks to minimize damage to the tundra. "We always used to be cautious, but now we are walking on eggshells," says Kurt Kinder, the Phillips Petroleum rep on the seismic team. But the tundra, like eggshells, is fragile, and once broken cannot be repaired.

    The contrast between Prudhoe Bay and ANWR--between human industry and wilderness--is starkest when you fly between them. The plane journey from Prudhoe east to the village of Kaktovik takes 35 minutes; halfway there, you pass over the Canning River, and suddenly the pipelines, roads and yellow-lit oil wells are left behind, and the unbroken whiteness of the refuge spreads out as far as the Canadian border. The 8,000-ft. peaks of the Brooks Range rise up on the south side, just 50 miles inland from the frozen fringe of the Beaufort Sea to the north. The flat plain in between is home to those who live closest to the refuge--some of the 7,000 Inupiat Eskimos who live along the North Alaskan coast. The Inupiat, by and large, favor drilling in ANWR. The other Native American tribe in the region, the 5,000-strong Gwich'in, who live in Arctic Village and other settlements on the southern fringe of the refuge, opposes it. The two tribes disagree on the issue as fundamentally as the Republicans and Democrats in Washington.

    The houses in Kaktovik, pop. 260, have drifts over their roofs. Snowfall isn't heavy on the northern slope of the Brooks Range--usually no more than 18 inches annually--but winds that reach 100 m.p.h. pile it in drifts against anything that rises above the tundra. The Inupiat who live here still hunt whale and seal for food. Boats jut from the snow along the small airstrip, which turns out to be a sandspit sticking out into the frozen sea. During the day, the only sounds come from dogs barking outside their houses and the occasional snowmobile or pickup crossing the village. At night, the northern lights play in the skies above, pale-green sheets of fire shooting up through the heavens.

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