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The BBC's Richard Lister
"This may be the most pristine wilderness in America"
 real 56k

Wednesday, 9 May, 2001, 11:08 GMT 12:08 UK
Clash over Arctic reserves

A taskforce set up by US President George W Bush to examine the country's energy policy is expected to report next week that more areas of the country should be opened for oil drilling.

One of those areas is Alaska, which is thought to contain substantial oil reserves. But the plan is being condemned by environmental groups who say drilling could damage the fragile ecosystem there.

The BBC's Richard Lister reports from the frozen wildlife refuge.

The Alaskan Arctic may be the most pristine wilderness in America - the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a haven for musk ox, wolves and caribou.

On the edge, a tiny village is trying to keep the oil companies out. This community has lived off the caribou passing through the refuge for thousands of years.

The animals provide almost all their meat but the proposed oil drilling would take place in the heart of the caribou calving grounds.

Oil running out

"It is a big development," said Arctic village elder Trimble Gilbert. "It might work for a short time and then there probably won't be any more caribou."

Caribou hunts are popular at this time of year, but hunters say they have not spotted a single animal.

The people suspect that existing oil development in Alaska is already affecting caribou migration. There has been drilling on Alaska's north coast for 30 years but the oil is slowly running out.

Oil lifeline

President Bush says America needs the deposits inside the wildlife refuge. Environmentalists say such development could ruin it but, surprisingly perhaps, most native people on the coast support the plan.

It is on the northern tip of the wildlife area that oil companies plan to drill.

Prudhoe Bay
The region around Prudhoe Bay produces a million of barrels of oil a day
For for most of the year it looks like an empty wilderness with ice stretching to the North Pole, but the people who live there say extracting the oil that lies beneath is their best hope for survival.

In the village of Kaktovic, the school and other facilities were paid for by oil industry taxes.

New drilling would bring in more money and they need it. Village elder Herman Aishanna says they still do not have a proper sewage system.

"Some of the buildings have sewage tanks and we have to empty those seven days a week," he said. "We need funding. We need help."

The fate of the wildlife refuge has become a key test of President Bush's approach to the environment.

For now his message is that America needs oil more than wilderness.

Producer: Karina Rozentals
Camera/editor: Mark Rabbage

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See also:

11 Apr 01 | Americas
Opposition grows to Alaska oil drill
12 Jul 99 | Americas
Alaska oil disaster 'imminent'
15 Nov 00 | Americas
Alaskans face the thaw
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