"The sacred place where life begins"
Inside The Endangered Arctic Refuge
by Peter Matthiessen|New York Review of Books
October 19, 2006
Wild northern Alaska is one of the last places on earth where a human being can kneel down and drink from a wild stream without being measurably more poisoned or polluted than before; its heart and essence is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in the remote northeast corner of the state, the earth's last sanctuary of the great Ice Age fauna that includes all three North American bears, gray wolves and wolverines, musk ox, moose, and, in the summer, the Porcupine River herd of caribou, 120,000 strong. Everywhere fly sandhill cranes and seabirds, myriad waterfowl and shorebirds, eagles, hawks, owls, shrikes and larks and longspurs, as well as a sprinkling of far-flung birds that migrate to the Arctic slope to breed and nest from every continent on earth. Yet we Americans, its caretakers, are still debating whether or not to destroy this precious place by turning it over to the oil industry for development.
A wildlife sanctuary in northeast Alaska had already been established when, in 1968, an oil-bearing geological formation called the Barrow Arch with exceptionally promising strata was discovered at Prudhoe Bay, an obscure location on the Beaufort Sea on Alaska's north coast. In 1977, with the completion of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), the first oil flowed from Prudhoe over the mountains of the Brooks Range to Port Valdez, eight hundred miles to the south.
Three years later, in 1980, Congress more than doubled the size of the sanctuary with the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in a huge wilderness directly east of the pipeline. Most of the 19.6 million acres permanently set aside for wildlife protection were steep rocky mountains uninhabitable by large creatures other than the white Dall mountain sheep. The one great wildlife region inside the refuge was the flat coastal plain between the Brooks Range foothills and the Beaufort Sea.
Even so, the refuge legislation might not have passed without concessions to Big Oil's lobbyists and aides, deeply embedded in Congress and the White House. The most significant concession was Section 1002 of the enabling legislation, which provided for later assessment of fossil fuel potential in the 1.5-million-acre region of the refuge's coastal plain nearest to Prudhoe, followed by a congressional decision on whether oil leasing and drilling would be approved there. Thus when one speaks of the ANWR dispute, one is implicitly referring to the 1002—or "Ten-Oh-Two"—as the contested area, somehow diminished by a numbered designation, is widely known today. How sad that this land, so vital to the native Gwich'in and Inupiat peoples, should be the center of what has become the longest and most acrimonious environmental fight in American history.
On March 16 of this year, as it has attempted to do many times since 1980, the US Senate authorized energy companies to drill in the Wildlife Refuge; since then, the House has passed similar legislation. During the August recess, Republican leaders across the country claimed to voters that exploiting the refuge will solve the problem of the nation's dependence on imported oil and reduce the high price of fuel. Should the two chambers reconcile their differences in this congressional session, our rarest and most precious wilderness may be lost for good. Despite all the oil industry's talk about "safe drilling" with environmental safeguards (less than credible at a time when, at corporate behest, a primitively pro-business administration is dismantling many decades' worth of hard-won protections), mining fossil fuels from a fragile, treeless plain will permanently deface, contaminate, and gut it, while accomplishing almost nothing to offset the so-called oil crisis.
Even if Congress should succeed today in bestowing the refuge on the corporations, the first leases could not be issued before 2008, after seismic exploration, test wells, permits, and the truncated Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) required for the lease sale are completed. Next would come seven more years of construction of hundreds of miles of roads and pipelines and hundreds of acres of infrastructure, from flow stations to cesspools—all this to be done during eight or nine dark months of ice and blizzard, followed by a brief summer season when roads and installations sink and shift in the endless swamps of water-logged tundra.
Not before 2015 could the oil extracted from the Wildlife Refuge affect energy supplies, and even then it would represent an inconsequential fraction of our gluttonous US consumption. (A Department of Energy report of September 2005 predicted that ANWR oil production, peaking in 2025, would slash the gas price at the pump by no more than one penny per gallon.) As most of our legislators know well, to flog this questionable source as a solution to our wasteful habits is not only dishonest but a long-term disservice to the nation.
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