Arctic Refuge: A Circle of Testimony


In 1959 Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas visited the North Slope of Alaska, the largest wilderness remaining in the U.S. He was so impressed by its wild beauty that he persuaded President Eisenhower to set aside 9 million acres of the area as a national wildlife refuge. However, oil was discovered near Prudhoe Bay in the late 1960s and Alaska rapidly became a refrigerated oil sheikdom. Oil dominates the state's politics and economy; drilling rigs, pipelines and service roads criss cross north Alaska. Oil revenues pay 85 percent of the state's budget, there are no state sales or income taxes, and each citizen of the state receives a check for $2,000 every year.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is on the eastern edge of the North Slope oil fields adjacent to the Canadian border and it is not an empty wasteland. The refuge is the home of one of the biggest caribou herds in the world, which supports several thousand native people. In fact, Congress increased the size of the refuge to 19 million acres in 1980. Alaska's elected officials have been pressing to open up 1.5 million acres along the shoreline of the refuge to drilling for the 7 billion gallons of oil thought to be underneath it. However, that land is the summer calving grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd; that is, the heart of the refuge.

As long as Russia floods the world market with oil and keeps prices depressed, it will cost more to drill the oil in ANWR than it can be sold for, but any official who hopes to be elected in Alaska has to promote oil drilling regardless of the economic or environmental costs. In the future as oil becomes more scarce, the pressure to drill in the refuge will only increase, unless it is given permanent protection as a wilderness or national park.

We spoke with Hank Lentfer, co-editor of the book Arctic Refuge: A Circle of Testimony, about some of the reasons to rethink drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

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