About 15 years ago, a decade after oil began flowing through the Alaska pipeline from the Prudoe Bay field, which is west of the refuge, I visited a high school in Point Barrow at the northern tip of the state. Before oil, the impoverished community housed its students in quonset huts. But the new school had everything, including computers on every desk, and an Olympic-sized indoor swimming pool.
The $50 million school wouldn't have been there without oil.
The state receives 90 percent of the government's revenues from Prudoe, and part of that goes into a savings account that now amounts to about $26 billion. Every man, woman and child in the state receives an annual "dividend" from the fund. Last year it was over $2,000. That's a hefty annual reminder of the role oil plays in the state's economy.
Ironically, the fund was the brain child of former Gov. Jay Hammond, who wanted part of the oil income set aside to force the state to develop other revenue sources. Years ago he told me he did not want to see the state become dependent on a non-renewable resource, but that plan backfired big time. The state is more dependent on oil now than ever before, and the annual checks guarantee that most residents will do little to inhibit the growth of the industry.
Oil development does not come without costs, as Alaskans learned with the Exxon-Valdez oil spill that blackened the spectacular beaches of Prince William Sound a few years ago. It's not possible to develop a pristine area like the Arctic without leaving scars.
But the impact can be kept to a minimum, according to the state's governor.
"Unfortunately, public attitudes about energy extraction are still based on 50-year-old perceptions of the oil patch," the governor said in testimony before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last year.
Caribou and Pipelines
Knowles and others say Prudoe Bay "debunks the myth," as he put it, that development and environmental protection are mutually exclusive.
Largely because of environmental opposition to opening the North Slope to oil development, Prudoe Bay had to meet "some of the toughest environmental standards in the world," Knowles says.
The argument decades ago against building the transAlaska pipeline that carries the oil from the North Slope to Valdez may come back to haunt environmentalists. Concerns were raised that the caribou might not be willing to cross the pipeline, thereby shutting them off from their breeding grounds.
But I personally saw caribou climb on top of the pipeline in a futile effort to escape the hoards of mosquitoes that drive them crazy. Sometimes, they have to be shooed off the runway so planes can land.
The number of caribou there, called the Central Arctic herd, has grown from 3,000 to 20,000 during the last 30 years, according to state figures, and is now the largest in recorded history. So right or wrong, environmentalists will have a tough time selling the argument that oil exploration inhibits the sex life of caribou.
And much progress has been made since Prudoe Bay was developed, according to state officials. Techniques such as slant drilling allow the wells to be clustered closer together. When he worked as a "rough-neck" on the North Slope as a young man in the 1960s, Knowles says, a drilling pad took up 65 acres.
"Today, they're a tenth that size," he says.
So a smaller footprint means less impact, but it doesn't mean no impact at all. Any development will inevitably change one of the most pristine areas on the planet.
Until oil came on the scene, it was disturbed only by the presence of a small native village, and an occasional military installation. That, quite likely, is going to change.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.