Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Arctic National Wildlife Range was established in 1960 to conserve 8.9 million acres of Alaska's remote northeast corner. This roadless area, north of the Arctic Circle, consists of arctic and alpine tundra, coastal lagoons and barrier islands, and boreal forest. It stretches along 110 miles of the Beaufort Sea (part of the Arctic Ocean) to the border with Canada's Yukon Territory. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) of 1980 increased the size of the refuge to nineteen million acres (about the size of South Carolina) and renamed it the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Together with the adjacent Ivvavik and Vuntut National Parks in Canada, it comprises the second-largest international conservation area in North America (after the Wrangell-St. Elias and Glacier Bay National Parks in Alaska and the neighboring Tatshenshini-Alsek and Kluane Parks in Canada) and one of the largest protected natural areas in the world.

To win passage of ANILCA, President Jimmy Carter compromised with Congress and left open the possibility of future oil and gas development in 1.5 million acres of ANWR's coastal plain in what was called the 1002 Area. Such exploitation would require an act of Congress. Ever since, this has been one of the most contentious environmental issues facing Congress, pitting prodevelopment legislators (primarily Republicans) against conservationists (primarily Democrats). For example, in 2002 the Bush administration advocated legislation to open the refuge to oil exploration, but this legislation was defeated by the Senate under Democratic control.

Oil companies argue that they can drill for oil in ANWR with minimal environmental damage. New technologies such as directional drilling allow for multiple wellheads on a minimal "footprint." In ANWR, this means that the oil deposits could be exploited from an area about the size of a large airport. Drilling waste can be reinjected deep under ground in porous rock formations. Three-dimensional seismic surveys provide more accurate data about the location of oil reserves, and thereby reduce the number of dry holes. Oil companies contend that work can be completed during winter months on temporary roads and drilling pads built out of ice that simply melts away in the summer. The industry argues that drilling in ANWR would reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil and prices at the pump. Furthermore, oil development would bring tax revenues to the state of Alaska and the national government. Many Inupiat Eskimos in the coastal plain of the refuge favor oil development for the economic boom it will bring them, although they oppose drilling offshore where they hunt whales.

Conservationists argue that 95 percent of Alaska's North Slope is already open to oil development. The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that ANWR likely holds enough oil to supply six months of U.S. consumption, and that these reserves would take ten years to develop. Conservationists point out that the United States could easily save more oil than can be extracted from ANWR by increasing automobile fuel efficiency standards. For example, a one-mile per gallon increase in U.S. automobile fuel efficiency for a thirty-year period would save more oil than the projected yield from ANWR. The refuge would not significantly decrease U.S. dependence on foreign oil or reduce pump prices: Even with ANWR oil, the United States possesses only 3 percent of the world's known oil reserves, but consumes 25 percent of world production. Oil in ANWR is thought to exist in several pockets, necessitating an industrial infrastructure of roads, pipelines, drill sites, processing facilities, power plants, utility lines, water reservoirs, airstrips, helicopter pads, gravel mines, landfills, equipment sheds, and living quarters that would fragment the landscape like a net, even though the drilling platforms themselves would not cover a large area. Ice roads and pads would require introducing a great deal of water into the desertlike coastal plain, while drawing that water from surface ponds and lakes could lower water levels enough to lead to complete freezing in winter, killing resident fish populations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that the 1002 Area has only enough usable water for ten miles of ice roads, necessitating the construction of permanent gravel roads.

The refuge's harsh climate leads to short growing seasons and slow life processes, which in turn make it vulnerable to human disturbance, including oil spills. Conservationists stress that in the nearby Prudhoe Bay oil field the industry reports an average of more than one spill of oil products or other hazardous substances per day. Large spills from the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline occur occasionally, as happened in 2001 when a man shot a bullet through the pipeline, causing a 285,000 gallon spill.

ANWR is home to the greatest diversity of wildlife of any protected ecosystem in the Arctic, including forty-five species of land mammals and about 180 species of birds. Although one of the most isolated natural areas in the world, the refuge is ecologically connected to most of the continents and to every U.S. state except Hawaii by more than 130 species of migrating birds that nest or feed on the refuge. The greatest concentration of pregnant polar bears denning on land in Alaska occurs in the 1002 Area, and this area is also the most important calving area for the Porcupine caribou herd, the world's largest international migratory herd, which in 2001 numbered about 130,000 animals. Every year the herd migrates 800 miles round-trip from its calving grounds in ANWR to the adjacent Ivvavik and Vuntut National Parks in Canada, where industrial activity is banned. The caribou provide subsistence to the Gwich'in Indians along the migratory route. The Gwich'in, whose name means "people of the caribou," oppose drilling in ANWR because they believe it would ruin their traditional way of life. For them the coastal plain is sacred. The Gwich'in are supported by the majority of Americans, who over the years have consistently favored conserving the coastal plain from oil development. The League of Conservation Voters commissioned Democratic and Republican polling firms in May 2001 to survey 1,000 Americans; they found that 62 percent opposed drilling in the refuge while 34 percent favored it.



Mitchell, John G. (2001). "Oil Field or Sanctuary?" National Geographic August 2001: 46–55.

Internet Resource

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Web site. Available from .

Frank A. von Hippel

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