Tom White was hunting bear near the mouth of Alaska's Copper River in 1896 when he slipped and fell into a slimy black pool. After returning to his cabin he cleaned off his rifle with an old rag and threw it into the fireplace.
The rag burst into flames, triggering White's curiosity. He returned to the pool, tossed a match in it, and stood back as flames leaped for the sky. The pool burned for a week, marking the beginning of Alaska's long love affair with oil.
White's discovery led to the first producing wells in Alaska, but it all came to an end on Christmas Day in 1933 when the refinery at the Katalla oil field burned to the ground. Although White and his discovery now belong to history, the fires still rage, not only in Alaska but across the United States, over the consequences of putting oil derricks in some of the most spectacular vistas in the world.
Most Alaskans Favor Drilling
The current lightning rod in this ongoing debate is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a sprawling chunk of land that stretches from the forbidding Brooks Range to the Beaufort Sea. Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, is expected to introduce legislation in about a week that would open the refuge's coastal plain to oil exploration.
The refuge is home to all those creatures Alaska is known for, from polar bears to wolves, and the coastal plain serves as a vital calving ground for the porcupine caribou heard. About half of the 19-million acre refuge is classified as wilderness, and thus is off limits to oil exploration. But in 1980 Congress mandated that the refuge's 1.5-million acre coastal plain be explored for oil.
The U.S. Geological Survey recently estimated that somewhere between 5.7 and 16 billion barrels of oil lie beneath the plain. Opponents say that's not enough oil to risk sacrificing the refuge, which is so remote that only about 1,000 people a year visit it. But proponents, like Alaska's Gov. Tony Knowles, say the field "could produce 2 million barrels a day for at least 25 years," and that's a lot of oil.
Knowles is a Democrat, but a Yale fraternity brother of President Bush, who has made opening (drilling for oil) the refuge a cornerstone of his administration's energy program. Alaska's two U.S. senators and lone congressman are Republicans with key committee assignments, and all strongly support oil development in the reserve. Most Alaskans do too, according to several polls.
As a resident of Alaska, I've learned to be careful voicing my own opinions. Any concern over the possible impact of oil extraction is usually viewed as selling out to those in the "lower 48."
That may seem a bit odd, since most people who live here came because of a deep love of the country. It's not an easy place to live. Costs are high, jobs are scarce, and there's a little problem with the weather.
So to live here, you've got to love it. But there are reasons why so many Alaskans favor oil development, despite some environmental consequences.
This is oil patch, USA. Oil revenues pay for state government in a region where doing anything costs a bundle. There is no state income tax, and with fewer than 700,000 residents, there's little chance of supporting state operations through taxes.
Plumping Alaska's Budgets