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The ANWR Drilling Debate

November 2, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: This pristine stretch of Alaska was first set aside as wilderness in 1960 by the outgoing Eisenhower administration. The aim: “To preserve unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values”. It’s known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The 19 million acres lie on the edge of the Beaufort Sea in the northeast corner of Alaska. Proposals to drill on 2,000 acres within its coastal plain have been in the works in Congress for years.

In the past, filibusters in the Senate have blocked that legislation. But now the fate of arctic drilling is tied to a Senate budget resolution, which requires only a simple majority to pass. Senators debated that issue today.

Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell said Republicans were trying to slip the legislation through the Senate.

SEN. MARIA CANTWELL: There’s no reason we should be doing this in the Budget Reconciliation Act and it really does set a precedent for what I hope is not another attempt to drill in other parts of the United States, whether it’s off the coast of Washington, the coast of Florida, or anywhere else.

GWEN IFILL: Missouri Republican Jim Talent disagreed.

SEN. JIM TALENT: Regardless of whether you’re a liberal or conservative, I don’t understand what coherent philosophy would advocate cutting your own nation off from oil within its borders.

GWEN IFILL: There’s no agreement on how much oil actually exists within the coastal plain. Estimates vary from 3 billion to 16 billion barrels.

Alaska Republican Ted Stevens supports the drilling move and disputed environmental groups who call the refuge a pristine wilderness.

SEN. TED STEVENS: This is the area in wintertime. And I defy anyone to say that that is a beautiful place that has to be preserved for the future. It is a barren wasteland, frozen wasteland and no caribou there during that period of time at all.

The porcupine caribou herd uses the coastal plain for only six to eight weeks. This is what it looks like in the summertime. With one well drilled, there’s a six-foot pipe sticking up, the rest of it is just constant, constant, constant tundra, no trees, no beauty at all.

GWEN IFILL: Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin disagreed. He flew over the area while on a camping trip.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: And as you looked to the west you could see the state lands that had been drilled for oil and gas, and then to the east the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that had not been drilled. It was easy to tell the two apart because the scars that were left on that state land that had been drilled were still there years and years later. They didn’t gingerly step in and drill and leave. They cut scars across that land that will be there forever.

GWEN IFILL: Democrats are attempting to strike the drilling language from the budget bill. A vote is scheduled for tomorrow.

So which is true? Is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a barren wasteland or a fragile and vibrant wilderness in need of protection?

We turn to two people who know the region well. Fenton Rexford is an Inupiat Eskimo and president of the native village of Kaktovik, the only settlement on the coastal plain. And Eleanor Huffines is Alaska regional director for the Wilderness Society. She lives in Anchorage, Alaska, and has traveled to the wildlife refuge many times, most recently this summer. You both are familiar with the region.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Rexford, you actually live there. Describe it for us.

FENTON REXFORD: Yes. There’s 300 Inupiats that live there in Kaktovik and it is a — it is a nice place for the residents there, but we — you know, it’s tundra, there’s the mountains about 70 miles south of us and it is a coastal plain there.

GWEN IFILL: You heard what Senator Stevens just said; he said it’s not beautiful at all, that there’s not much there.

FENTON REXFORD: Yes. Well, in the wintertime it’s — it is a wasteland. I mean, it is, you know, barren. There’s no animals — hardly any animals there in wintertime. So —

GWEN IFILL: So you think it would be a good idea to drill there?

FENTON REXFORD: It is. The activity would happen — occur in the wintertime where there’s no animals, like the senator said, Senator Stevens said. Right now we are looking for caribou up in the foothills or up in the mountains.

GWEN IFILL: Eleanor Huffines, you have been there. You describe it.

ELEANOR HUFFINES: I have spent quite a bit of time there, Gwen. I’m not as fortunate as Fenton to live there but over the past 15 years I’ve traveled there numerous times and every time the arctic refuge surprises me: Wolves hunting caribou, nesting swans, the light on the Arctic Ocean. It’s quite an incredible natural ecosystem in motion.

And then one of the more incredible things is that people often misrepresent drilling. It does not occur just in the winter. So during those critical summer months — it happens all year round — exploration, development, and production occurs.

GWEN IFILL: So you think it would be a bad idea to extend the exploration into that area?

ELEANOR HUFFINES: We do have significant concerns both for the Gwich’in Nation as well as for the ecosystem. People have —

GWEN IFILL: Describe what you mean when you say the Gwich’in Nation; everybody doesn’t know.

ELEANOR HUFFINES: The Athapaskan people from arctic villages as well as all the way farther east into Canada are concerned about the future of the coastal plain for the Porcupine Caribou herd, which is important. I cannot speak for the Gwich’in, but as they’ve communicated to me in the past, concerns for the future that of herd both for their culture and their livelihoods.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Rexford, why don’t you respond to that?

FENTON REXFORD: Yes, I will respond to that very well. There are four caribou herds in the North Slope of Alaska: The Western Arctic Caribou herd, the Pacific Caribou herd and then Central Arctic Caribou herd, which also goes into 1002 and Porcupine Caribou herd that migrate.

When these caribou co-mingle together, they bring several hundred caribou along with each other. In fact, the caribou herd that went to Kaktovik 300 miles from west of us went to 1002 area winter, they brought along the central arctic herd as well.

GWEN IFILL: So you’re saying the caribou are vibrant, there’s a lot of them?

FENTON REXFORD: Yes. There’s several hundred thousand caribou up on the arctic slope. So when we hear that the Porcupine Caribou heard is when 1002 is open —

GWEN IFILL: What is 1002?

FENTON REXFORD: 1002 is the area –

GWEN IFILL: That we’re talking about.

FENTON REXFORD: That’s the million and a half acres that is going to be open, and when we talk about the central arctic herd, or the Pacific herd, they commingle with each other and they bring along, you know, several hundred caribou that — so you know, central arctic herd that we depend on are right there in Prudhoe Bay and they’ve multiplied many, many times over, over the past several years.

GWEN IFILL: In a broad sense, and I’ll start with you, Ms. Huffines, what would be lost and what would be gained if this region were opened to exploration?

ELEANOR HUFFINES: Unfortunately, the National Academy of Sciences recently documented the cumulative impacts of oil and gas development to this region. There’s no mistaking the harm to the caribou, to the birds, to the clean water and the clean air. And it doesn’t take science to prove that to you. If you go to the oil fields, it’s pipelines, it’s roads; it’s gas flaring, it’s industrial sprawl over a thousand square miles.

GWEN IFILL: That’s the Prudhoe Bay area where it’s already begun?

ELEANOR HUFFINES: That’s the Prudhoe Bay area moving west, and so the harm to the wildlife and the culture is quite clear if anyone spends time up there, and that’s the unfortunate part.

GWEN IFILL: It’s your wildlife and your culture, Mr. Rexford. What is to be lost or gained if this were to happen?

FENTON REXFORD: Well, I’ll just let the people know, I live in Kaktovik all year round and we’re very afraid when Prudhoe Bay was first — when oil was discovered in 1968. We were opposed to the oil and gas development. Now that it’s been over 35 years the caribou are still there and the water foul are coming back so I don’t know what the fears are of the environmental and the folks that have been saying that once 1002 is open these things will be gone, will disappear. And we still — we’re still getting caribou.

GWEN IFILL: What do you gain if it happens?

FENTON REXFORD: Oh, there’s many things that we will gain as Inupiats. We have the North Slope — it’s a county type government that provides services from the taxing powers of its authority on the infrastructure. There will be — you know, we just recently got flush toilets and running water in the year 2000. We’re in the new millennium and these are the things that we just gained a couple years ago that you folks take for granted in the lower 48.

GWEN IFILL: But economically this would be a boom to the region?

FENTON REXFORD: Yes, economically, jobs, schools, good clinics, good, you know, modern communications. We didn’t have that just in the 1970s era.

GWEN IFILL: Ms. Huffines, you heard Senator Talent say it should be a no-brainer — that we should be allowed to look for oil within our borders considering the fact that there are so many shortages and prices are going up. What’s your response to that?

ELEANOR HUFFINES: Just this summer the Energy Department released new statistics on the amount of oil in the arctic refuge and our own government found that at peak production in 20 years at best it will only reduce the price of gas by about a penny. And our imported oil will still be above 60 percent. So it would be a shame to sacrifice this national treasure for such little to no impact on our national security or energy supply.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Rexford, there’s much discussion about the footprint. How much room — how much of the land there would actually be affected by any kind of drill organize any kind of exploration —

FENTON REXFORD: Yes, in 1970 when the Prudhoe Bay was discovered they used 65 acres to drill.

GWEN IFILL: And now how much?

FENTON REXFORD: They’re using five acres today. So there’s minimal impact. You know, the advantage in technology I’ve seen. I’ve lived there and I’ve seen it. And so from 65 acres to five acres in the Alpine area is quite substantial.

GWEN IFILL: That includes all the pipes that take you to the pipeline and everything else as well?

FENTON REXFORD: I’m not sure what it is, but it is the drilling pads.

GWEN IFILL: What do you say to that, Ms, Huffines —

ELEANOR HUFFINES: I’ve actually had the opportunity to visit Alpine. Alpine, which is the newest oil field on Alaska’s North Slope; when it was first proposed it was promised to be 115 acres. Today the proposal has been expanded and we’re looking at 133 miles of projected roads, permanent gravel roads, pipelines and into important subsistence buffer zones that were promised to be kept clear of permanent facilities. So the industrial sprawl is simply moving west despite the promises of new technology.

GWEN IFILL: But if this is supposed to be only drilling in the winter and ice roads, which melt away come spring, what kind of footprint will it leave?

ELEANOR HUFFINES: There is not one oil field in Alaska’s North Slope that does not have permanent gravel roads, including Alpine. The ice roads are sometimes used for exploration but recently the government is allowing permanent gravel roads as well. There is some improved technology but doesn’t erase the roads that already exist and are needed.

GWEN IFILL: I want to talk to you a little bit Mr. Rexford, since you live there, about quality of life — hunting, whaling, the traditions that you have in the area which you live as well as what you expect for the future, whether this might lead to offshore drilling. What is your sense when you hear these arguments?

FENTON REXFORD: The arguments — all of us in the North Slope — I say all of us, there are many residents that live on the North Slope — and there are eight villages. We are all opposed to offshore drilling.

GWEN IFILL: So you don’t think that’s going to happen as a result of this?

FENTON REXFORD: That’s not going to happen because of this. They have already sold leases and this does not tie directly into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge debate.

GWEN IFILL: Quality of life for you?

FENTON REXFORD: Quality of life has been very well for us. Past 1970 I graduated from high school in Oregon. Now in 1980, our first graduate of high school happened in a community school. I do not want to send my daughter who is 15 or 14 years old to Oregon or Oklahoma now. The quality of life K-12 are at home and, again, I just mentioned a little a while ago, in the year 2000 we have running water and flush toilets and here we are in the new millennium. We were just finally able to flush and have running water.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. Well, we will see what the Senate and the House do. Thank you both very much for enlightening us.


FENTON REXFORD: Thank you very much, Gwen. I appreciate it.