Oil Drilling: the View From Alaska

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

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.