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Arctic Drilling Proposal Sparks Heated Debate

by Brian Hansen

Sticking an oil well in the wildest place left in America
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge contains millions of acres of fragile tundra habitat
(ENS) WASHINGTON, DC -- The debate over opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development came to the National Press Club in Washington November 1, as a top Clinton Administration official and a powerful Republican Senator outlined two very different views of the contentious election year issue.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, appeared at a press conference with a host of environmental leaders to urge that the refuge be "permanently protected for future generations."

"When people talk about opening [the Refuge] to oil development, they're advocating sticking an oil well right smack in the middle of the wildest place left in America," Clark said. "What will future generations think of us if we hand them an Arctic coastal plane scarred with oil well, roads and pipelines, sucked dry of fuel and also sucked dry of the incredible wildlife that used to be there?"

But at another press conference held just down the hall, Clark's point was sharply refuted by one of the leading proponents of opening the refuge to oil development, Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski.

Murkowski, a Republican, did acknowledge that there are some "legitimate environmental concerns" associated with petroleum development in the region. But the senator had little to say about that subject today, focusing instead on what he termed the "national security" implications of the matter.

"Recent events in the Middle East have given us yet another reminder that we are being held hostage to foreign oil," said Murkowski, referring to the terrorist attack in Yemen that killed 17 sailors aboard the U.S.S. Cole, a Navy destroyer. "It doesn't have to be this way."

Murkowski advocates opening up the so-called "coastal plain" of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil development, a position shared by his party's Presidential nominee, Texas Governor George W. Bush.

The 1.5 million acre coastal plain is the only area of the Alaskan North Slope where oil exploration and development is prohibited by law. Murkowski argued that opening the ANWR coastal plain to oil development is necessary to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

about America's policy on Iraqi oil
Murkowski lashed out at President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic candidate for president, for "discouraging" domestic oil production, which the senator said has compromised the nation's foreign policy.

"How can we be an honest broker in the Middle East peace process when we are beholden to Israel's sworn enemy -- [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein -- to keep our citizens warm this winter?" said Murkowski. "We need [Iraq's] oil -- 600,000 barrels per day."

Murkowski maintained that Clinton and Gore are putting American soldiers and sailors at risk in order to prop up their "failed energy policy."

"Remember, the U.S. forces at risk are in place to protect oil we depend on from the Middle East," he said. "Our dependence on Middle East oil illustrates the failure of our energy policy and constitutes a threat to our national security."

Opening up the coastal plain to oil exploration could significantly reduce this dependency, Murkowski said. The Alaska senator said the region could increase domestic production by almost one million barrels per day -- nearly twice the amount of oil that the United States imports from Iraq on a daily basis.

"We can reassert American leadership by assuring that our energy policy and our foreign policy are working to achieve common goals," Murkowski said. "We can open ANWR safely. The potential is there."

The Clinton Administration's Clark countered that opening ANWR to oil development would have a "major adverse impact" on the refuge and its wildlife.

"There should be no illusions on this point. It would mean that a lot of wells, ports, dormitories, helicopter pads, and so on, will need to be connected by many miles of roads and pipelines criss-crossing the coastal plain in a web of development that will certainly fragment this unique wildlife habitat," Clark said. "It means competition for limited water between industry and wildlife, it means garbage, pollution, and toxic and oil runoff in the last pristine corner of America's arctic."

Clark's point was echoed by Athan Manuel of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a nonpartisan government watchdog organization. Manuel took issue with Murkowski's oft repeated assertion that opening ANWR's coastal plain to oil development would only leave a "small footprint" on the area.

"The track record of the oil industry in Alaska is anything but a small footprint," said Manuel. "It's more like the footprint Godzilla leaves on a small, unassuming town."

Manuel used a large photograph of Alaska's Prudhoe Bay area to make his point. Prudhoe Bay was once a remote wilderness area much like the coastal plain. Since 1968, when North America's largest oil field was discovered at Prudhoe Bay, oil development has transformed the once pristine spot into one of the most heavily industrialized areas in the U.S.

"There's over 1,000 square miles of development there -- that's about the size of the state of Rhode Island," said Manuel.

Prudhoe Bay now sports some 500 miles of roads, 150 drilling pads, 1,400 wells and hundreds of miles of pipelines. The area suffers from a serious air pollution problem. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation says that more than 43,000 tons of nitrogen oxides are spewed into the air each year -- almost twice the amount emitted in the Washington, D.C. area.

About 500 oil spills occur in the region each year, involving more than 80,000 gallons of oil, diesel fuel and other materials, Manuel noted. Moreover, about 12,000 acres of wildlife habitat have been destroyed by waste disposal operations in the area, Manuel pointed out.

"This is clearly not a small footprint," he said. "Oil drilling is a dirty, dangerous and polluting industry and it damages the wildlife values that we want to preserve."

The proposal would also do little to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil or lower gasoline prices, said Dan Lashof, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"The United States cannot produce its way out of oil price spikes," Lashof said. "The United States can and should reduce its dependence on petroleum."

Lashof said that legislative riders drafted by the automobile and oil industries have torpedoed Congressional efforts to raise fuel economy standards that would protect American citizens from fluctuating oil prices.

Clinton urged to protect Refuge as national monument
More than 240 North American scientists sent a letter to President Bill Clinton on Nov. 1, urging that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge be permanently protected from oil exploration.

"Five decades of biological study and scientific research have confirmed that the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge forms a vital component of the biological diversity of the refuge, and merits the same kind of permanent safeguard and precautionary management as the rest of this original unit," the scientists stated in their letter.

One mode of permanent protection for the coastal plain would be for the president to use his executive authority to create a national monument out of the refuge.

Senator Murkowski, asked if he thought Clinton would grant national monument status to the refuge before leaving office, said, "It depends on what kind of legacy he wants to leave."

© 2000 Environment News Service and reprinted with permission

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Albion Monitor November 6, 2000 (

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