Nothing can be gained from damaging Arctic's pristine wilderness

November 03, 2005|By JONATHAN WATERMAN

In 1985, I lost myself in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Wild grizzlies gamboled shyly above camp, Arctic char dimpled the rivers and Dall sheep avalanched down mountainsides. I did not see the threat posed to the refuge by global warming.

I had no idea that over the next 20 years scientists would predict the disappearance of the Brooks Range glaciers, that I would see acres of coast collapsing into the sea as permafrost foundations melted, that year-round ice would begin disappearing from the rivers or that the caribou herd would be reduced because of changes in snow cover.

Add to this fragile state of affairs an oil industry, and we can kiss America's most pristine wilderness goodbye.

Today, 95 percent of the Alaska North Slope is open for oil business. The most well-known field, Prudhoe Bay, gasses out more than twice the nitrogen oxides of Washington, D.C. Also, increasingly hot weather in northern Alaska is causing fires that burn over a million acres each summer.

It all seemed intact 20 years ago, but now it wouldn't take much imagination to see that in another 20 years a new oil field might lie in the midst of the essential caribou nursery of the Arctic refuge. The rigs, roads and pipelines would block access to the coast for porcupine caribou seeking relief from voracious flies and mosquitoes and force the herd to calve up in the dry foothills, where resident predators would press their home-field advantage. The magnificent herd would be further reduced, and the refuge predators - wolves, grizzlies and wolverines - would, in turn, also begin to disappear.

The presence of oil-related activity and infrastructure would doom flighty musk oxen, millions of nesting birds and denning polar bears. So I've asked myself and others over and over again, with an open mind, about the advantages of the refuge oil development currently being considered by Congress through the budget reconciliation bill. What would be gained?

The oil fields would take nearly 10 years to build, and it would be another 10 years before the flow of Arctic crude would begin to peak. According to the careful science of the U.S. Geological Survey, this crude would provide little more than a year's worth of oil for the United States over the next 50 years. At its peak, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, ANWR oil would equal eight-tenths of a percent of the world's oil production and 3 percent of the U.S. consumption.

Alaska would achieve a short-term financial gain, as would the federal government, by leasing the refuge land to oil companies. The oil companies - now showing record-breaking third-quarter profits - would reap a new windfall. Each year, based on a wise investment of increasing oil revenues, every Alaskan citizen would begin receiving increasingly large dividend checks.

Meanwhile, according to the EIA's July 2005 forecast, at the peak of this oil production 20 years from now, the rest of America would save a penny a gallon at the gas pumps.

For those who would profit financially, or who are blind to the fundamental building blocks of an ecosystem, this destruction might seem acceptable. Most of us have no grudge against oil, which provides untold travel freedoms and is used in the manufacture of scores of household goods. Yet these luxuries have to be measured against the Faustian deal we've made with fossil fuel consortiums smothering clean energy alternatives.

For those who won't accept this exploitation, it's time to tell lawmakers to wake up and smell the benzene. If only for the sake of our children, Congress cannot pass the budget reconciliation bill. And, 20 years from now, we won't have to be ashamed that we sold Arctic wildlife and the last 5 percent of undefiled North Slope for a penny a gallon.

Jonathan Waterman is the author of five books about Alaska, including his most recent, Where Mountains Are Nameless: Passion and Politics in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He may be reached at

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