THE US Senate has voted to allow oil drilling in a remote wildlife refuge in the northern state of Alaska. Senators voted 51-49 against an amendment that would have struck the measure from the federal budget.
The 19-million-acre (7.7 million hectare) Alaska Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, known as America’s Serengeti, is home to a wide variety of wildlife. The area houses 45 types of mammals, including polar and grizzly bear, snow geese and caribou, as well as 180 different species of bird.
The refuge’s website waxes lyrical about its natural beauty and tranquillity. “The atmospheric colours of sunshine on mountain peaks at 2am; the adrenalin rush of glimpsing a grizzly bear beyond a willow thicket; the realisation that you are days away from the bustle of human activity…a trip to the Arctic Refuge is an inspiration and a life-changing experience,” it maintains.
But the area also has the potential to produce 16 billion dollars of oil. So visitors hoping to enjoy the area’s natural beauty may have to endure the sights and sounds of oil drillers within a few years. If Congress approves the Alaskan drilling, officials say it would probably take seven to 10 more years before oil begins flowing from the ground. The plan is the culmination of President Bush’s objective of reducing American reliance on imports. “This project will keep our economy growing by creating jobs and ensuring that businesses can expand,” Bush said in a statement after the vote.
Drilling pointless, say opponents
Democrats and some Republicans opposed the plan, arguing that the area should be left untouched. Those in favour maintain that tapping the refuge would lessen dependence on foreign oil, reduce energy prices and ease the country’s growing trade imbalance. They also argued that modern technology would limit the area needed to drill in the Arctic.
But opponents disagreed, saying that drilling would do little to reduce dependence on foreign oil and that there would be virtually no impact on prices, which they argue are fixed as a result of activity on the world market. Opponents also said that pipelines and drilling platforms would harm wildlife in the area.
Alaska’s oil has proved to be a key battleground for past presidential campaigns, with heavy public support across America, both for and against more drilling in the state. But, in Alaska itself, public opinion is almost unequivocally in favour of oil exploration. Its capital, Anchorage, is a city enriched by oil. The Democratic Mayor of Anchorage, Mark Begich, says politicians opposed to oil drilling would be unelectable. “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,” he says.
In the past, Congress has specifically protected the area from development. But New Mexico Republican, Pete Domenici, said before the vote that the refuge had the country’s most significant onshore production capacity. “We should do everything we can to produce as much as we can,” he said. Former presidential candidate, Senator John Kerry, who proposed the amendment, disagreed, saying that America should not try to drill its way out of its energy crisis.
Some commentators say there is not much interest among oil companies in drilling in the refuge itself. Instead, they claim that some Republicans view the plan as a political manoeuvre that could pave the way for other environmentally controversial projects such as drilling off the Florida or California coasts.
Environmentalist Bob Shavelson monitors toxic pollution created by oil sites. On the Kenai Peninsula, south of Anchorage, oilrigs can be seen on the horizon against a stunning mountain backdrop. He claims that people have forgotten the legacy of the Exxon Valdez oil spill that devastated 1,300 miles of coastline in 1989. “We know from investigations that have come out of the Exxon Valdez spill that oil is much more toxic than we previously thought. And, more importantly, it’s not just the short-term that is causing us problems – it’s the long-term,” he makes clear.
The concerns of environmental campaigners not withstanding, it seems unlikely that any oil-rich area within reach of the United States will remain immune from exploration for very long. Oil prices reached record highs last month, shortly before the vote took place.
Money speaks louder than environmental concerns and, as long as Americans remain conspicuous guzzlers of oil and over-enamoured of their cars, any government is bound to pursue new means of satisfying its consumers.