If our only source of energy was oil, and if the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was the last place on Earth that might hold this precious resource, one might consider a proposal to explore and produce oil from this extraordinary wilderness.
But this will never be the case. We have a diversity of energy sources. There are many places on Earth where companies can find and produce energy, be it oil, natural gas, coal, geothermal, hydroelectric, wind, solar or hydrogen. We also have the technology to produce more efficient vehicles and dramatically reduce our burning of fossil fuels and our dependency on foreign oil. As a nation, we could be leading the world with the development of clean renewable energy.
In Alaska, we have a vast amount of land and waters dedicated to the extraction of oil and gas. Nearly all of the North Slope, an area roughly the size of North Dakota, is open for current or future development. Each year, the state of Alaska leases hundreds of thousands of North Slope acres to the oil industry through competitive lease sales. The U.S. Department of Interior is also aggressively planning to lease millions of acres in the vast National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. There are plenty of opportunities for continued oil development in areas already open to industry, including the development of significant known reserves such as West Sak.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain is the rare exception. This controversial sliver of coastal land is the only area off limits to oil drilling--a mere 5 percent of the North Slope that is legally closed to industry. Yet, this forbidden fruit continues to be sought after by politicians and special interest groups. It has become a symbolic battle, as well as a golden political bargaining chip and an issue that brings advocates on both sides to the boiling point.
Ironically, after 20 years of battles over the Arctic refuge, the oil industry is disinterested. Major producers, such as BP, Conoco-Phillips and Chevron have chosen not to finance Arctic Power, the lobby organization whose sole mission is to open the Arctic refuge to oil drilling. Over the past decade, Arctic Power has wasted nearly $10 million of public funds in its campaign to drill for oil in one of the most sensitive wildlife areas in America. Is it ethical for the state of Alaska to grant another $1 million to Arctic Power when the oil companies themselves refuse to pick up the tab? Could it be that these companies have too much on their North Slope plate already or just better prospects elsewhere?
The Arctic refuge coastal plain is an extraordinary birthplace and wilderness. In the winter, it offers sanctuary to the highest density of land-denning polar bears in America. In the summer, I have witnessed the spectacular migration of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, including tens of thousands of newborn calves. Birds such as tundra swans, golden plovers, Lapland longspurs and yellow warblers make exhaustive migrations to the coastal plain to build their camouflaged nests and raise their young. It is life in the Arctic at its fullest moment of creation.
The wilderness character of the Arctic refuge coastal plain is unsurpassed. The highest glaciated peaks of the Brooks Range dramatically rise up from the expansive tundra. The beautiful vistas are open and far-reaching. One can stand on the edge of North America, gaze across the vast ice-mantled Arctic Ocean and truly feel the wildness of walking near the top of the world.
The coastal plain also supports the subsistence and cultural needs of the Athabascan Gwich'in people of Alaska and Canada and the Inupiat people of Kaktovik. The Gwich'in people in some 15 villages are united in their opposition against drilling in the sacred calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, a herd that has sustained them for thousands of years. Inupiat residents are divided on the issue. Some are opposed to the hunting restrictions that would come with oil development.
This birthplace and unique wilderness has no place for roads and pipelines, drilling rigs and generators, oil spills and landfills. It is one of those few special places on Earth that we need to leave for future generations of man and wildlife. While we have many choices for energy production and use, we only have one Arctic refuge. In the words of the late Margaret Murie, will we be wise enough to leave some of this great land empty of technology and full of life?
Author and Fairbanks resident Debbie S. Miller has explored the Arctic Refuge over the past 30 years.