If you want to raise the temperature anywhere in Alaska, just mention the debate over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), as I found out this past week when I visited the state. I wasn't surprised that most everyone I talked to was in favor of drilling, since I was there to give a speech to members of a rural electric cooperative. What surprised me was how angry people were that their fellow Americans knew so little about Alaska itself. As one man put it: "Folks in the lower 48 don't know diddly about our state, but they think they can tell us natives how best to protect it."
At issue is whether the federal government should allow drilling in the coastal plain on the northern edge of the ANWR. The refuge itself, which got special federal protection in the late 1970s, is enormous: 19.6 million acres, an area about 20 percent bigger than West Virginia, but still a tiny section of Alaska itself. And of this area alone, only a minuscule portion -- equivalent to about the size of a large metropolitan airport -- will encompass the actual drilling fields. No one knows for certain how much oil lies beneath the coastal plain, but U.S. Geological Service estimates are that the region contains between 5.6 and 16 billion barrels.
Environmentalists and their friends in the Democrat Party have nonetheless tried to convince Americans that if exploration for oil in the ANWR goes forward, it will wreak environmental devastation. And their propaganda war is made easier because most Americans know almost nothing about Alaska, especially the region at stake. Ads sponsored by environmentalist groups feature striking mountain ranges, abundant wildlife, pristine forests -- all of which exist in Alaska, just nowhere near (by hundreds of miles) where any oil exploration will take place.
Most of the ANWR is closed to any kind of oil drilling or other development forever. Some 8 million acres in the ANWR, about the size of Maryland and Delaware combined, are already designated protected wilderness. The 1.5 million acres of coastal plain, which is where any drilling would take place, is a vast, mostly barren, arctic desert most of the year. Though temperatures do rise to the 40s in the brief summer months, the land is too inhospitable for most animals, birds or humans to spend much time there. One exception are caribou, which travel through the ANWR along the Porcupine River each year. Environmentalists claim that oil exploration will destroy the Porcupine caribou herd, which now numbers about 130,000.
The same claims were made two decades ago by those who opposed the building of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, which carries oil from Prudhoe Bay 800 miles south to Valdez. Caribou herds in the regions affected by the pipeline have actually grown exponentially since the pipeline was built, and there are now more than one half million caribou in the area.
Most Alaskans, including those involved in the energy business, are passionate about protecting the wild beauty of their incredible state -- which is why they become angry when politicians and others who have never even visited Alaska act as if Alaskans themselves are ready to despoil it. Among native groups who live in the affected area, the Inupiat Eskimo, support exploration. The Gwich'in people, who oppose drilling, live 150 miles to the south of the coastal plain, but previously leased their own land for oil exploration, though none was ever found.
Alaska remains the last great American frontier, and drilling along a tiny section of the northern coast won't change that. The state, which is about one-fifth as large as the entire territory of the lower 48 states, remains almost entirely uninhabited, with just 627,000 people. There are few roads in the state, only 9 highways in all, and traveling any distance means mostly flying, boating, cross country skiing, hiking or snowmobiling where you want to go. Most Alaskans believe they can preserve the wildness of their state and still allow the rest of us to share the wealth of their great oil reserves. Maybe we should trust them more than people who've never set foot on the frozen tundra of the ANWR.