We can have Refuge oil and healthy caribou

Posted: Monday, April 02, 2001

The following editorial appeared in Friday's Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

Alaskans have few illusions about the oil industry.

Many of us have seen, up close and personal, the operations of the North Slope oil fields and the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. We can testify to the gains made through years of continuing refinements in drilling and processing technologies, resulting in smaller well pads and overall consolidation of industry's "footprint" in the wild, often inhospitable, tundra.

Even as we joke about exhaust pipe "diapers" and other regulatory overkill in Alaska's oil patch, we Alaskans recognize and endorse the value of ever-increasing environmental protections. We haven't forgotten the casual handling of materials and reckless disposal practices that once stained the land surrounding Deadhorse. We cheer industry's continuing cleanup of sites contaminated during the pipeline boom and early years of Prudhoe's development.

We've learned to take nothing for granted, particularly with respect to hiring and training Alaskans for the job opportunities opened by oil field development.

The current fanfare regarding "partnership with industry" and rising local-hire statistics comes in direct response to decades of seething dissatisfaction over Outsiders holding the cream jobs in Alaska's oil patch.

We've learned to sharpen our pencils and double-check the industry's oil tax calculations, if need be, defending the state's interest in court.

Alaskans have learned to be wary of grandiose guarantees from Outsiders, such as were heard regarding the safety of tankers prior to the Exxon Valdez spill.

Yes, Alaskans have a unique perspective on the oil industry. Our view is grounded in hands-on experience, front-row observations of industry's behavior over decades and, yes, love of the land and its wildlife.

In that regard, we understand that the opposition to oil development within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is largely based on self-serving rhetoric from preservationists and misguided emotional appeals.

No Alaskan would sanction oil development if we believed it endangered the magnificent Porcupine Caribou Herd. The concerns we do have in that regard - understanding as we do the fragile nature of survival in the far North - are balanced by the knowledge that the Central Arctic Caribou Herd has thrived in the shadow of Prudhoe Bay's sprawling oil field infrastructure.

We take for granted that any intrusion into the Porcupine herd's calving ground will be minimized by thorough winter construction techniques, and generally trust that pipelines and other necessary structures can be designed to quietly share the Coastal Plain without apocalyptic effects on its roaming wildlife.

There are those who insist upon portraying the oil potential of the Refuge as a mere drop in the bucket alongside the nation's current and future energy needs.

Alaskans grasp that development of ANWR represents not a six-month trickle, but what's more likely a steady 20- to 30-year contribution to the nation's domestic oil supply. Moreover, in light of Prudhoe's declining output, Alaskans appreciate the value of an additional stream of crude flowing from the Refuge to sustain overall production in volumes necessary to keep North Slope oil moving to market through the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

At the same time, many Alaskans recall that our Statehood Compact, the agreement spelling out the terms of this former territory's admission to the union, provides for a 90-10 split on revenues arising from mineral development on this state's federal lands. Yet, the Refuge development plan before Congress calls for surrendering a large portion of that entitlement.

That panicky giveaway troubles many Alaskans, who understand, full well, that whatever oil ANWR holds will be worth even more to the nation tomorrow than it is today.

Pressures being applied for rapid development, like those mounted for preservation, are purely political and, thus, short-sighted. Who is being served, many Alaskans have to wonder, in our lawmakers zeal to spend nearly $2 million trying to sell Refuge development in the face of a deeply split Congress?

America's appreciation for the merits of Refuge oil development will surely grow in the face of increasing energy demands. Full application of fuel efficiency standards, conservation measures and intensified exploitation of energy alternatives might convince those Americans suspicious of industry's motives that our leaders are ready to make prudent decisions addressing national energy imperatives.

Meanwhile, industry's environmental safeguards only get better with time. From Swanson River to Alpine, Alaskans have witnessed that continuing evolution.

Sooner or later the nation will join us realizing we can have Refuge oil and healthy caribou.

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