WASHINGTON - Opponents of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are trying to throw cold water on the pro-drilling forces.
While drilling opponents have made wildlife and wilderness the central debating points, they have recently questioned whether there is enough fresh water to support oil drilling in ANWR's coastal plain.
A drilling advocate, however, says the water argument is based in ignorance and that the challenge of working in an Arctic desert was answered by the oil industry decades ago.
At a Wednesday House Resources Committee hearing on the national energy strategy bill unveiled by the House leadership on Tuesday, Rep. Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat, grilled Interior Secretary Gale Norton about water supplies in ANWR.
In her testimony to the committee, Norton touted the wonders of ice roads as a development tool. She visited the North Slope in April and June.
"Ice roads used in the winter do indeed melt away in the summer with little impact," she said.
But Holt, a physicist, estimated each mile of ice road on the North Slope requires about 1 million gallons of water. He cited federal estimates that total wintertime freshwater supplies in the ANWR coastal plain are 9 million gallons.
"That is one of the concerns and that is something we'd have to deal with," Norton said, adding she would look into the issue.
But Roger Herrera, a geologist working for the Alaska-based pro-drilling group Arctic Power, told the panel fresh water doesn't have to be drawn from ponds or rivers where fish and biologically important plants and animals live.
"Snow is fresh water waiting to be melted," he said.
All an oil drilling crew on the North Slope must do, he said, is put up a fence and watch the wind-driven snow collect behind it. The snow can be melted and used for drilling and ice roads, a technique used for decades, Herrera said.
He acknowledged that it takes an enormous amount of snow to make a little water. But at about 2,000 feet below the North Slope surface, saltwater is present in "unimaginable" quantities, he said.
"Nearly all the drilling rigs now have desalination units on them," he said.
Even if fresh water is in great supply, the ice roads themselves are not without controversy. Holt said he has been told by colleagues that routes are still clearly visible on the tundra after the ice melts.
Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican and vice chairman of the Resources Committee, said the tracks are not from recent exploration activity. He countered claims that ANWR is an untouched wilderness.
"This is not a virgin area," Young said. "It has people living in it, military sites, Native villages. It is not a pristine area. The idea that it's America's Serengeti is nonsense."
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