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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Alaskan Reserve Opening for Oil Exploration

Air Date: Week of

One of the most remote and pristine stretches of the United States may soon be crawling with heavy equipment searching for oil. After an 18-month study the Clinton administration says it is opening nearly four million acres of wilderness on Alaska’s Arctic coast to oil exploration. Living On Earth’s Senior Correspondent Peter Thomson traveled to the region, known as the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. One of the most remote and pristine stretches of the United States may soon be crawling with heavy equipment searching for oil. After an 18-month study, the Clinton Administration says it's opening nearly 4 million acres of wilderness on Alaska's Arctic coast to oil exploration. Living on Earth's senior correspondent Peter Thomson traveled to the region, known as the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, with Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt as the study began. Peter's been following events since then and joins us now in the studio. Peter, was this decision a surprise?

THOMSON: Well, I don't think many people who watch the process closely were surprised by it. Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the Interior Secretary, who is responsible for the decision, told me last year that his mind was not made up on this and wouldn't be until the review process was done. But I don't think that once the question was asked of whether we should go in there and drill that, there really could be any other answer than yes.

CURWOOD: Why do you say that?

THOMSON: First and foremost, there's no need for this oil right now. World oil markets are flush, things are pretty stable in the Middle East, about as stable as ever, anyway. And prices are very low. There's no compelling need for this oil. Also, there was no real push to lock this place up as wilderness. Nobody even really knew about this place until they started studying it. So, in absence of a real national debate on this place, the only real answer is political.

CURWOOD: Okay, so what are the politics that are coming into play with this one?

THOMSON: Well, one is the politics of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is the big area to the east, which the Clinton Administration has been adamant in keeping off-limits to the oil industry. There's some speculation that this is a bone that they're throwing to the oil industry to sort of keep the heat off ANWAR. But there's something more transparent going on here, and that's Alaskan politics and the role of Alaska in national politics. It's a small state but it's very powerful. It's got 3 representatives in Congress, and they are all in key leadership positions in the GOP Congress. The only breathing Democrat of any stature in the state is Governor Tony Knowles. He happens to be up for reelection this year. Now, Knowles asked President Clinton 2 years ago to open up the National Petroleum Reserve. Clinton said that he would ask Babbitt. Babbitt scheduled a study. The decision just happened to be due just as Tony Knowles was going to be heading into the stretch run of his reelection campaign. Now, it doesn't take a 5-year-old to connect those dots. The irony, of course, is that Tony Knowles is immensely popular in Alaska and probably will win, anyway. But there may be some calculus here that if Knowles can get reelected comfortably, that somewhere down the line he can challenge one of those Senators or Congressmen and steal one of those Republican seats in Washington.

CURWOOD: Hm. Now, you said that many environmental activists had no idea of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska and its wilderness value. But I guess now they're pretty unhappy that Babbitt has said let's open this up to drilling. What are they worried about?

THOMSON: Well, I mean, that's another irony. Virtually every scientist who has studied this place says that it's just as important for wildlife as the Arctic Wildlife Refuge itself is. It's home to migratory caribou, migratory birds from all over the hemisphere down to Argentina, grizzly and polar bears, fish. It's chock full of lakes, it's got Alaska's largest lake. Aesthetically it's incredibly beautiful and bizarre landscape. And like ANWAR, it's almost entirely untouched. So, the only significant difference between the 2 stretches of land is a political one. One was set aside for wildlife, one was set aside for oil.

CURWOOD: Okay. Now, Babbitt says that he can have the oil companies operate in this area sustainably. Do you think that's possible? And what will it look like once the oil starts flowing?

THOMSON: Well, first of oil, it's not completely certain it's going to flow. The environmentalists hope to be able to challenge the decision. But provided that it goes through, and it probably will, it's going to look pretty different than the big fields at Prudhoe Bay, for instance. And this was one of the selling points for Secretary Babbitt and others. The oil industry really has learned in the last few years to shrink their impact in the Arctic. They're going to do everything on ice roads in the winter time, so there will be no permanent roads. They'll move equipment mostly by helicopter, rather than truck. They've also learned directional drilling techniques and to compress their wellheads into smaller and smaller areas, so the footprint really will be much smaller than it would have been 20 years or so ago. Also, some of it is just off limits. Thirteen percent of this area is considered crucial wildlife habitat, which the oil industry can't touch. Of course, there's a bigger question, and it's interesting. Secretary Babbitt I think referred to this as a model of sustainable development. But burning oil is an inherently unsustainable activity. And the bigger question, of course, is on the one hand the Administration is giving this plum to the oil industry. On the other hand, it's trying to generate concern about global climate change. The biggest contributor to climate change is the burning of fossil fuels, like this oil that they're going to be pumping out there. And the place on the planet that is most sensitive to climate change is the Arctic. We're already starting to see it there. Permafrost and glaciers are melting; wildlife are changing their migration timing. So, there are some real big contradictions at work here.

CURWOOD: And you would think that Secretary Babbitt, who is one of the most active environmental types in the Administration, would know that. So, how do you think he can make this decision?

THOMSON: Well, he's a canny politician and he's also a loyal trooper for his President and his party. I think he probably had to swallow very hard before making this decision. I don't imagine that his heart was in it, but I think he felt like it was a sacrifice that he had to make. I'll tell you, I'll be real interested to read his memoirs when this Administration is history.

CURWOOD: All right. Well, thank you very much. Living on Earth's Peter Thomson.

THOMSON: Thank you, Steve.



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