ANWR: To drilll or not to drill?

by Solveig Gardner Servian


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon




The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is a 19 million-acre area in the northeast corner of Alaska. The current controversy is whether or not to begin oil exploration in the Coastal Plain, an area covering 1.5 million acres; this represents 8 per cent of the ANWR. Bordering the Beaufort Sea, this section is approximately 100 miles wide and 30 miles deep. The land is flat and seemingly barren until it reaches the foothills of the Brooks Range.

Reasons for

The need for oil is unquestionable. The US currently imports 55 per cent of its oil requirements. The North Slope oilfield resources are declining and present contribution is around 17 per cent of domestic production, which cannot be sustained for many more years.

Perhaps surprisingly, 75 per cent of Alaskans are in favour of tapping their oil resources. Most importantly, the Inupiat Eskimos, the area's indigenous people, support the proposals. For them it would mean positive progress towards the type of social infrastructure that most of us in the Western world take for granted: housing, education, healthcare, police and fire services.

The oil companies claim that drilling and production techniques have developed to a sophisticated level, minimizing surface use and the impact on the environment.

Job creation is another incentive for people to vote for the project, although most positions are unlikely to be long term.

Those against

Ecologists are concerned that any industrial activity in this pristine area will have a devastating affect on the environment. It will damage the fragile tundra, destroy plant life, disturb the birthing areas of the polar bear and caribou, upset migratory birds and cause air pollution, not to mention the risk of spillage.

Roads will have to be built, pipelines laid and gravel excavated from surrounding ponds and rivers, all of which will change the face of the area forever - once tampered with, there is no chance of restoring the tundra to its original state. All for little return, according to the Sierra Club, who states that there is not much oil there anyway, based on estimates which suggest that there is only a six-month supply of economically recoverable oil.

The land itself

Although seemingly barren at first sight, this area of tundra supports a wealth of wildlife. The extensive wetlands, rolling foothills, deepwater lakes and wild rivers are home to thousands of birds, caribou, bears and freshwater fish. Willow grows abundantly in areas irrigated by rivers. Sedge grass meadows are found in boggy areas, providing food and nesting grounds.

Bird life

Migrating birds such as geese, ducks, terns and so on arrive at the end of May. Some stay to breed, others merely use the area for feeding en route to other destinations. Eggs hatch during July and the chicks have only a short time to build up their strength and learn to fly. Adult birds also moult and need to rest and feed whilst their new feathers are growing. The return migration begins at the end of August and by the time the snows arrive all the visiting birds would have gone, leaving the Willow Ptarmigan, ravens and snowy owls to overwinter.


There are two species of caribou that migrate through the Coastal Plain: the Porcupine Caribou Herd and the Central Arctic Herd. Migration to the area begins in March, with calving at the end of May when the snow has begun to recede. When they are sufficiently well fed, the southward journey begins, any time from August to October. The caribou are valued for their meat and skins by both the Inupiat Eskimos and the Athabascan Indians.

Polar bears

Polar bears make their dens along the edge of the Coastal Plain. Here the type of snow and wind conditions form drifts that are ideal for making their dens, earlier in the season than elsewhere. The bears rarely venture far over land, preferring sea ice for its proximity to their food source, hence they are rarely found in this area during the summer. Cubs are born during the winter and emerge in April when the sea ice starts to break up.

Freshwater fish

Arctic char, salmon and burbot are among over twenty species found in the area

The people

The indigenous people of the area are the Inupiat Eskimo and the Gwich'in Athabascan Indian. The Gwich'in are not certain that they should support the drilling project.

The Inupiat Eskimo community holds title to 92,000 acres of privately-owned land in the centre of the Coastal Plain. They number 8,000 and one of their villages, Kaktovik, is situated in the Coastal Plain area. Naturally they have very strong views on the subject of oil exploration in their homeland; they, after all, have the most at stake.

It is in the interest of the local people to safeguard their wildlife, to protect their environment and to preserve their traditional lifestyles. Having carefully considered every issue, the Inupiat believe that their land can be developed responsibly, particularly as so much has been learned from the Prudhoe Bay development of the 1970s. They also believe that development of their land is in the best interests of the United States.

The Inupiat consider that they have a basic human right to develop their own economy, to decide what happens to the land that is rightfully theirs, yet they cannot take any action without Congressional authorization.

The decision

In order to start drilling, legislation has to be passed and this is set to take some time. Many e-mail petitions are being circulated supporting both possible outcomes. Before signing up to any petition, one should be properly informed: the ANWR and Sierra Club websites, among others, are both excellent sources of information.

© S. G. Servian 2003



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