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Last Updated: Saturday, 25 September, 2004, 22:52 GMT 23:52 UK
Oil fuels votes in Alaska
By Martha Dixon
BBC, Alaska

Oil rig in Alaska
Battlelines are drawn over Alaska's oil

Alaska is America's last frontier.

A fifth the size of the mainland US, much of it is vast protected wilderness - undeveloped land.

But that could change. President Bush wants the US to use more American oil.

Although proposals have failed in the Senate, the Bush administration is still pushing for huge drilling projects across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the north where large oil deposits have been located, and in already established oil areas in the south.

Alaska's oil has proved to be a key battleground for the presidential campaigns, with heavy public support across America both for and against more drilling here.

Mountains in Alaska
Much of Alaska's land remains undeveloped - for now
In Alaska itself, though, it's a different story.

Downtown Anchorage has been shaped by oil wealth. Glass-fronted skyscrapers emblazon the horizon, most of them oil company headquarters.

Like Texas, no-one pays state income tax here. On top of that, each Alaskan man, woman and child gets a cheque every October for about $1,700 as a dividend from the state's oil money. Called the permanent fund, it can make a massive difference to the income of a family of four or more.

The fund was created in the 1970s. The state set aside a quarter of all oil royalties as a nest egg to be used as oil revenues declined. The fund is now worth about $22bn.

Backing for Bush

People in Anchorage are in no doubt who this state will vote for in November's presidential election, and that oil has everything to do with that.

This really is a pioneer state and we still have many years ahead of us in terms of development
Steve Straight, Republican candidate for the State House
"I'm going to vote for President Bush because he's in favour of developing Alaska's resources which are here in abundance. It will benefit our economy and the economy of the whole of America," said one Anchorage woman.

"I think Alaska will vote overwhelmingly for Bush - he's for oil and the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - and that's who they're going to vote for," said another man.

The Republican Party is strong in Alaska. They haven't lost a Senate seat here since 1974.

In an Anchorage suburb, Alaskan Republican Party members talk about election tactics over a supper of Alaskan smoked salmon.

Environmentalist Bob Shavelson
We know from the science that's come out of the Exxon Valdez oil spill that oil is much more toxic than we previously thought
Bob Shavelson, environmentalist
Steve Straight, a candidate for the State House, told me why he thinks his party is so popular in Alaska.

"I think the Republican Party really appeals to Alaskans because we're so close to the land. This really is a pioneer state and we still have many years ahead of us in terms of development."

But that development has also spelled disaster for Alaska.

Environmentalist Bob Shavelson monitors toxic pollution created by oil sites. As we walk along the beach on the Kenai peninsula, south of Anchorage, oil rigs can be seen on the horizon against a stunning mountain backdrop.

He says people seem to have forgotten the legacy of the Exxon Valdez oil spill which devastated 1,300 miles of this coastline in 1989.

We're trying to convince fellow Democrats... that we can develop Alaska's oil in the right way
Mark Begich, Democratic mayor of Anchorage
"We know from the science that's come out of the Exxon Valdez oil spill that oil is much more toxic than we previously thought. And more importantly it's not just the short term that's causing us problems - it's the long term."

He says he can't understand how the state of Alaska can want more oil development.

Downtown Anchorage
Downtown Anchorage has been shaped by oil wealth
"Our concern is there is continuous discharging of toxic pollution here from the oil and gas platforms. We're talking about three billion gallons a year that's going into these fisheries. I think John Kerry would certainly do a better job for Alaska's future."

Despite those concerns, such is the support for drilling here that Alaskan Democrats are going against their party's nationwide stance.

"I think it would be difficult for any Alaskan to get into office if they weren't pro-oil development. We're trying to convince fellow Democrats around the country that we can develop Alaska's oil in the right way," the Democratic Mayor of Anchorage, Mark Begich, said.

Alaska can't count on the planned exploration of its wilderness even if President Bush is re-elected. But he still knows he can probably count on Alaska to vote for him.


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