Behind a special report: Refuge of riches

Posted: Sunday, July 22, 2001

President Bush's proposal to allow oil drilling in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge appears to be nearing a vote of the full U.S. House of Representatives after its Resources Committee approved the ANWR provision, 26-17, on Tuesday.

Proponents say 16 billion barrels of oil could be produced in an environmentally sound manner as a step toward reducing dependence on foreign oil imports.

The legislation, known as the Energy Security Act, has broad support in Alaska. The flow of oil from ANWR would fuel the state's economy through jobs, taxes and royalties. The Lower 48 is more skeptical and there is considerable opposition in the U.S. Senate.

Congress designated a portion of ANWR as protected wilderness in 1980, but specifically excluded the coastal plain for further study. In 1996, President Clinton vetoed Congress' decision to open the area for oil exploration. If a similar measure makes it as far as the president's desk during the next 3 1/2 years, approval is assured.

But even if Congress stalls the current push, the issue of drilling in ANWR will not go away. As long as ANWR holds the potential for a huge petroleum strike amid a national economy where energy demands exceed domestic output, the refuge will be a coveted exploration target.

But as is evident from delays, vetoes and opposition, there is more to the issue than boosting the Alaska state treasury, creating jobs or slacking the U.S. thirst for foreign oil.

ANWR's special character has been recognized. A refuge by definition is a place of shelter. Some opponents refuse to consider energy exploration within ANWR as a matter of principal.

The refuge is home to 180 species of birds, nine species of marine mammals, and 36 species each of fish and land mammals, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Attention has focused on the Porcupine caribou herd, which migrates through the refuge, and on the Native people whose material, cultural and spiritual connections to the herd are long-standing.

In response, Empire reporter Bill McAllister and photographer Michael Penn traveled to the refuge in June and met with the Gwich'in Athabascans of Arctic Village, who oppose drilling, and with the Inupiats of Kaktovik, who are more open to the possibility of oil production but who believe the real issue is local control.

In the roadless emptiness of ANWR, they met with the "ecotourists" who have flocked there this summer. They also visited Prudhoe Bay, the new Alpine oil field and the trans-Alaska pipeline before returning in July to Juneau. McAllister then updated the latest political developments and wrote the stories we offer today in an eight-page special section. The section, designed by Lori Thomson, is richly illustrated with Penn's photographs and graphics by Yvonne Beasley.

Despite and because of the strong feelings about ANWR, care was taken to present this package without advocacy. It is traditional journalism: fair, accurate and balanced. We could have supported the special section with advertising. We chose not to. By applying traditional journalism to a contemporary issue, we hope to provide information that will help you understand ANWR's complexities.

Your attention is invited to the Empire's special report, "Refuge of riches."

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