Originally created 04/08/01

Whitaker: Alaska oil and gas could help Americans weather energy crisis



The debate over America's energy policy likely will move to the front pages when Congress completes its work on tax cuts and campaign finance legislation. Much of that discussion probably will center on whether or not to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration and development. Here are some reasons why opening ANWR is a good idea:

Why should Congress allow oil and gas exploration on ANWR's coastal plain?

It was set aside by Congress for just that purpose. When the 19 million-acre refuge was created in 1980, a 1.5 million-acre strip on ANWR's coastal plain was reserved for assessment of its petroleum potential, apparently with the intent of allowing gas and oil production if it proved economically and strategically advantageous.

The U.S. Geological Survey has already made several studies of the coastal plain. Why isn't that enough information to determine whether oil is there?

There is no way to really know what's under the ground until physical exploration is made, including test wells. The USGS coastal plain estimates are based on a collection of various seismic and surface geological data. These studies have been valuable in determining the probability of oil. The latest figures (from the 1998 USGS report) indicate a range of 95 percent probability that 4.25 billion barrels of oil can be extracted from the coastal plain to a 5 percent probability that 11.8 billion barrels of recoverable oil exists. The study indicates a mean of 7.7 billion barrels.

The fact that the region is situated between the prolific North Slope fields to the west and Canada's oil-rich Mackenzie Delta to the east reinforces the USGS numbers, but the figures are simple predictions. Only exploration will reveal how much gas and oil really lies beneath ANWR's coastal plain.

It has been more than 20 years since the coastal plain was set aside, why is it so important to explore the area for oil now?

There have been previous efforts to open the plain for exploration but they have been effectively blocked by determined environmental interests that want to keep ANWR pristine; they worry about how development will affect polar bears, migratory birds and caribou. The most recent effort to open ANWR was in 1995 when Congress, under the leadership of Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, sent legislation to President Bill Clinton as part of the Balanced Budget Act. Clinton, under pressure from environmental lobbyists and others, vetoed the bill.

Today, America's increased dependency on oil imports, especially from OPEC nations, has left America economically vulnerable. In 1948, the United states imported only 8 percent of its oil. In 1997 that figure was up to 53.1 percent, according to the American Petroleum Institute, and it climbed to 56 percent in 1999. If development of the coastal plain were to begin next year, it would take up to 10 years to begin delivering oil from ANWR.

What do Alaskans think of opening the refuge to oil exploration and production?

Alaska's Democrat Gov. Tony Knowles and the state's congressional delegation, all Republicans, support opening the coastal plain. Polls have shown that more than 70 percent of Alaskans favor opening the area and believe it can be done in an environmentally responsible manner. In addition, the state Legislature has passed several resolutions favoring ANWR development.

How do the Native Alaskans who live on and near the coastal plain feel about development?

Two groups of Natives have an interest in ANWR development. The Gwich'in Indians of nearby Arctic Village oppose opening ANWR because they fear oil and gas production will harm the Porcupine Caribou herd that they depend on for subsistence. However, the growth of the Central Arctic herd on and around the North Slope oil fields has seen dramatic growth despite oil development. Alaska's Department of Fish and Game records show a growth from 5,000 caribou in 1974 to 27,128 in 2000.

The Inupiat Eskimos of the North Slope - particularly those of Kaktovic village, the only people who actually live on the coastal plain - embrace development.

George N. Ahmaogak, mayor of the North Slope Borough, which encompasses ANWR, sees his people as stewards of this land. He has a vision for it, a vision much different from those who see ANWR as a pristine wilderness unmarked by human influence.

His is "a vision of a land that is neither untouched nor untouchable. ... It is our home and we are part of it. We belong there just as much as the caribou and the fish and the birds. ... (ANWR) holds the remains of our ancestors just as it holds the future of our children. Our great great grandfathers enjoyed its beauty and its bounty, and with careful development, our great grandchildren will do the same."

Why should Americans want to tap the potential oil field on the coastal plain?

The United States is suffering an energy crisis and needs a cohesive policy that, along with conservation and the development of alternative fuels, provides a secure, reliable and affordable energy supply.

Right now, according to figures from the Edison Electric Institute, 51 percent of the electricity in the United States comes from coal; 20 percent from nuclear power; 15 percent from natural gas; 10 percent from hydroelectric dams; 2 percent from fuel oil; and about 1 percent from renewable sources such as wind and solar power.

If coal and nuclear power were eliminated as sources of electricity the way some environmental groups advocate, 71 percent of today's electric power would be eliminated. The crisis in California, where no new power plants have been built for 12 years, is an example of what could happen to the rest of the country if we allow environmentalists to restrict carbon and nuclear fuels before viable alternatives are developed.

Americans need an energy policy that is not subject to the whims of foreign oil producers or the sometimes irrational demands of environmental lobbies, but provides Americans power with as little environmental damage as possible. That policy should include the development of alternative power sources, while at the same time finding new sources of oil and gas. Opening ANWR's coastal plain, where billions of barrels of oil and gas await discovery, should be a component of that policy.

Jim Whitaker is an editorial writer for The Augusta Chronicle and a former editor for the Juneau (Alaska) Empire. He can be reached at (706) 823-3367 or jim.whitaker@augustachronicle.com