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Thursday, 10 January, 2002, 17:33 GMT
Alaska oil plans stir controversy
Drill, BBC
The ongoing energy crisis, and America's war on terror, has once again raised the issue of fuel supply in the United States.

And once again it seems that the beautiful tundra of Alaska are in the firing line.

Our people as a whole are united in our position to protect the Arctic refuge, our way of life and the caribou herds

Evon Peter,
Arctic Village mayor
Controversial plans to drill for oil in one of the most ecologically sensitive areas of Alaska are gaining momentum, so much so that the US Senate will vote on oil exploration within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in February.

But one key question in the debate has caused widespread division - just how much oil is there in Alaska?

Jewel in the crown

Kim Duke, executive director of Arctic Power - which campaigns for access to the ANWR - is in no doubt that there is a rich supply of oil underneath the frozen tundra of the reserve.

She thinks it is so rich that it could rival the jewel in the Alaskan crown - that of the North Slope fields which are 160 kilometres (100 miles) to the west in Prudhoe Bay.

She said: "The US Geological Survey has estimated that the reserve potential is between five and 16 billion barrels. If you take an average or a mean figure, you would be talking 10 billion barrels - which would be second only to Prudhoe Bay as a find in North America."

But Richard Fineberg, a former advisor to the governor of Alaska on oil and gas draws a very different conclusion.


He sees a high likelihood of disappointment for those who are hoping to strike a big oil field in the ecologically sensitive ANWR.

Map of ANWR, BBC
The ANWR could be subject to drilling
Describing the developers' figures as "bogus", Mr Fineberg says that the geological survey found Alaska "a viable province, but with a cluster of small fields that might or might not be discovered."

Mr Fineberg also says there is a chance it may not be economically viable to recover any oil they discover.

Of course this is not the only conflict caused by the plans for drilling - it is even causing a minor rift between the Alaskan Indian population of the area.

The Arctic refuge is the base for two groups of indigenous people, the coastal Inupiat and the land-locked Gwich'in.

The Inupiat Indians live on the northern tip of the 77,700 sq km tundra. They live on top of the oil fields and are in favour of both the drilling and the revenues it would bring.


Their way of life has already been influenced by drilling - the industry pays a tax on the oil it extracts in Prudhoe Bay.

The US geological survey has estimated that the reserve potential is between five and 16 billion barrels of oil

Kim Duke,
chief executive of Arctic Power
The uniform rows of grid-like streets, the four-wheel drive vehicles and modern wooden bungalows in the Inupiat village of Kaktovic show that they have already accepted any benefits and costs that oil may bring.

But the Gwich'in - who live on the southern end of the ANWR in basic and spartan conditions - claim that drilling could mean disaster.

They depend on caribou (a kind of large reindeer) meat for their existence and are worried that the herd they hunt as it migrates 1,300 km across the plains will be displaced and destroyed.

The threat has roused the Gwich'in to defend their heritage, as Evon Peter, mayor of the aptly named Arctic Village explained: "Our people as a whole... are united in our position to protect the Arctic refuge, our way of life and the caribou herds.

"The elders gave us a direction and a message to go out and share with the people about our way of life, and about why we feel it's so important to protect the land and animals we live in balance with here."


But just as no one really knows how much oil is in the tundra, the truth is that it is not known what impact oil exploration will have on the caribou.

A worst-case scenario shows animal numbers falling by as much as 40%. This could have a disastrous effect as the smaller herd would need less food, and may not migrate through Gwich'in territory as a result.

But supporters of the drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve point to the experience at Prudhoe Bay, where the Caribou herd has increased in size.

And although Kim Duke admits there will be some disturbance, she also says any drilling area would be small, and subject to strict environmental controls.

"Some people have the perception that the caribou will just be squeezed in the area between oilfield facilities," she said.

"But we're talking about an impact area of 2,000 acres (809 hectares) that the field would be limited to - in 1.5 million acres. So it's a very small percentage of the land that would be affected."

Kim Duke
'As much as 16 billion barrels of oil'
Richard Fineberg
"Oil may not be economically viable"
Evon Peter
"It's important to protect the land and animals we live with"
See also:

02 Aug 01 | Americas
Head to head: Arctic oil drilling
02 Aug 01 | Americas
US House backs Arctic drilling
02 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
Ice and oil: The risks
09 May 01 | Americas
Clash over Arctic reserves
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