Buried in a Senate budget bill was an item allowing oil prospecting in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the north coast of Alaska. The refuge, empty and remote, has been a battleground since Jimmy Carter was president. Democrats and moderate Republicans tried to remove the oil provision from the bill, but they lost, 51 to 48. The overall bill passed last night by 52 to 47. The House may vote differently.
I went to the Arctic Refuge some years ago, when oil companies and environmental groups were fighting over it, and thought it was the perfect Rorschach test for how people look at the wild. Depending on your outlook, it’s a frozen, barren, empty place where oil must be bubbling just beneath the tundra … or it’s a spectacular, unspoiled, beautiful plain, wedged between mountains and the Arctic Ocean, where caribou and musk oxen nurture their young.
It was June. I’ve never been so cold in my life. I’ve never felt so far from safety, not even in far corners of Asia or Amazonia. We went hunting with members of the Inupiat tribe, a group of several hundred hardy souls who are the only residents of this vast region; one of them gave us his pistol so we could protect ourselves from Polar Bears.
The fog kept us trapped for days in the tiny village of Kaktovik. The houses were on stilts so they’d stand in the permafrost. The only color seemed to be gray. I shivered indoors. A man took pity and lent me a pair of insulated coveralls. I still shivered.
But then the weather broke, and everything changed to a warm gold. We flew west in a single-engine plane along the coast to Prudhoe Bay — in blazing sunlight, even though it was 2 am. The mountains to the left looked lunar, except for shining snow caps; the ocean to the right shimmered in the sun, low on the northern horizon.
The tundra below was littered with light brown boulders — except that they were moving. They were musk oxen. We circled low to get a better view. The adults gathered in a V-formation, circling with us to shield their calves.
For years I’ve mulled the arguments that swirl there, but opposing points collide perfectly —environmental vs. economic, practical vs. spiritual, gray vs. gold.
· Is there a lot of oil there? Hard to say, even after all these years.
· Would drilling be good economics? It could mean a nice hunk of money for Alaska and the U.S. Treasury, or it could be terrible for the Inupiat and Gwich’in tribes, who’ve been subsistence hunters — and might be cut out of the action.
· Would drilling be bad for the environment? They do have all sorts of technologies for minimizing the “footprint” of their drilling rigs.
· Could the oil there make a difference to pump prices or America’s dependence on Middle Eastern crude? Even the high-end estimates say probably not.
I could make the list a lot longer, but in the end we’re as divided as the Senate was.