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Oil and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: FAQs
CBC News Online | Updated November 4, 2005

What is it?

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is 7.7 million hectares of protected land in the northeast corner of Alaska, about the size of New Brunswick. It borders on the Yukon and the entire refuge is north of the Arctic Circle.

Environmentalists have described it as the American Serengeti – the country's last chunk of pristine wilderness. It is home to caribou, musk oxen, moose, wolves, polar, brown and black bears, and 180 species of migratory birds. The caribou form the huge Porcupine caribou herd, which migrates between Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories.

The refuge has been protected since 1960 when U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower declared that four million hectares of tundra and mountains in the northeastern corner of Alaska be set aside as a protected wildlife refuge.

Anybody live there?

About 220 Inupiat live in the village of Kaktovik, on Barter Island, just off the coast of Alaska but within the ANWR. The Inupiat are among a handful of peoples in North America still allowed to hunt whale. They can take three bowhead whales a year.

About 150 Gwich'in Indians live in Arctic Village, which is about 240 kilometres south of Kaktovik. The Gwich'in rely heavily on the Porcupine caribou herd for food.

Why is the area attracting so much attention?

Oil. There's a fair bit of it under the frozen tundra – although exactly how much is the subject of debate.

The companies that want to get at that oil estimate there's 16 billion barrels waiting to be pumped south � or about 30 years worth of Middle East oil imports. U.S. government geologists have estimated a likely reserve of perhaps 10.4 billion barrels in the 700,000-hectare coastal plain region at the northern end of the ANWR. That's the only part of the refuge where the U.S. government has considered lifting the ban on development.

But it would be economically feasible to pump out only a fraction of that reserve. A 1998 study estimated that about 1.9 billion barrels could be recovered at a price of $24 per barrel. Environmentalists and other opponents of opening the area to oil exploration argue there's no way to know how much oil is there.

The Union of Concerned Scientists suggests there may be enough oil to fuel vehicles in the United States for six months. It argues that making vehicles more fuel-efficient will save far more oil than Alaska could ever produce.

How much support is there for drilling for oil in the region?

A fair bit. Polls suggest that 75 per cent of Alaskans support developing the region. The Inupiat were initially opposed to opening up the region for oil exploration. But they've changed their minds in recent years. They see oil and the jobs that come with it as the best way to improve their lives. There are few jobs in their village and they've been left behind economically while the rest of Alaska is doing quite well.

The Gwich'in, on the other hand, oppose drilling for oil in the ANWR.

In 1980, the U.S. Congress expanded the protected region to the size it is today – but it also opened the door to developing potential oil reserves, but only if Congress specifically authorized it.

In 1995, Congress authorized oil drilling in the coastal plain – but President Bill Clinton vetoed it.

In 2005, the U.S. Senate passed a budget bill that included a provision that approved opening ANWR to oil drilling. Previous attempts to pass the drilling approval were blocked by filibustering Democrats, but Senate rules forbid filibustering on budget bills.

But on Dec. 21, 2005, the Senate blocked – for the time being – drilling in the wildlife refuge when the Republican majority failed to secure a 60 per cent majority needed to prevent a procedural move. It effectively killed the attempt to approve drilling in the region.

What's the risk in development?

Depends who you ask. The oil companies say modern technology makes drilling for oil in sensitive areas far safer than it ever was.

The Inupiat say they are satisfied that development can be carried on safely. They point to the Prudhoe Bay oil field to the west of the refuge as an example of how development and traditional life can co-exist.

However, BP Amoco, the major oil company at Prudhoe, has had some challenges. On Sept. 23, 1999, the company pleaded guilty to a federal felony connected to illegal dumping of hazardous waste at their Endicott Oil Field near Prudhoe Bay. As part of a plea agreement BP Amoco agreed to pay $22 million in criminal and civil penalties.

The U.S Public Interest Research Group says between January 1997 and March 1998 BP was responsible for 104 oil spills in Prudhoe Bay.

The Gwich'in argue that drilling for oil and building the pipelines that will be needed to ship it south will endanger the caribou herd.

The Porcupine herd has been steadily growing over the past few decades. However, an American government study on the caribou herd concludes that while the herd appears strong now, "productivity [of the herd] can and will decline if the cumulative loss of preferred habitat, when superimposed on natural forces, is sufficient to compromise nutrition."


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