ANCHORAGE - Seven congressional candidates from across the country visited the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge this week, hoping the unusual campaign stop would draw support from voters battered by high fuel prices and a lethargic economy.
The candidates, all Republicans, said Thursday that the trip cemented their support for drilling in the refuge and vowed to cast their votes accordingly if elected to Congress.
"Our districts are crying out for help on these energy issues," said Craig Williams, a former assistant U.S. attorney who is running in suburban Philadelphia. "We need an energy plan now and although ANWR won't be the solution, it should be a component of that plan."
The candidates, from Indiana, Utah, Wisconsin, South Dakota and Pennsylvania, told reporters they were convinced that drilling could go forward in an environmentally safe manner and would barely make a dent on the vast Arctic tundra.
Outside, a group of about 30 environmentalists, Alaska Natives and others protested against drilling, which they said would ruin a key habitat for caribou, polar bears, whales and other wildlife.
"We just wanted to show that not all Alaskans believe this push for drilling is the solution," said Rebecca Noblin, an Anchorage-based attorney for Pacific Environment. "There's fuel conservation, alternative energy and other, better options."
Energy experts believe the extraction of ANWR's likely 11 billion barrels of oil would send a signal of increased U.S. interest in domestic energy production. In the long run, however, it likely would not significantly impact oil or gasoline prices.
The Energy Information Administration this year said that oil from the refuge would have only a slight impact on global oil prices, reducing them $1.44 per barrel in 2027 in the best-case scenario. Assuming Congress approved its opening, it would take about a decade before the refuge could start producing.
The energy administration also predicted that dollars spent on foreign fuels would be reduced by at least $135 billion over a 12-year span ending in 2030.
The state-funded lobbying group, Arctic Power, set up in 1992 to push for drilling in ANWR, handled travel arrangements and other logistics for the "Congressional Challengers Tour." Candidates said they paid all expenses themselves during the three-day trip to the refuge and the Inupiat Eskimo communities of Barrow and Kaktovik, 600 miles north of Anchorage.
The group also included Paul Stark of Eau Claire, Wis., Chris Lien of Rapid City, S.D., Jason Chaffetz of Alpine, Utah, and Indiana candidates Mike Sodrel of New Albany, Luke Puckett of Goshen, and Greg Goode of Terre Haute.
The idea of drilling in the refuge is popular in Alaska, where roughly 85 percent of the state's general fund comes from oil royalties, and hearty support comes from both sides of the aisle.
Ethan Berkowitz, an Anchorage Democrat running for the seat held by longtime House Republican Don Young, said he would work to open ANWR despite his own party's long history of resistance. Young has been a vocal supporter of opening the refuge for years.
"Opening ANWR is going to require a bipartisan approach," Berkowitz said. "These guys will be in the minority, but I will be able to speak inside the majority to help make ANWR part of a comprehensive national energy policy."