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Big Oil set to shaft Alaska's pristine North Slope
Toledo Blade


September 19, 2005

The 19.6-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the North Slope of Alaska, hard by the Beaufort Sea, is both a dream and reality.

It is so remote, so far away, that it seems to exist as only a dream. But it is real, one of the few remaining intact ecosystems on the planet; it is still free of man's interference.

Admittedly, relatively few souls actually can experience it firsthand. But the fact that it is just "out there," untouched, is a comfort in the dreams of many folks who would go, if they could.

The refuge is the home of thousands of caribou, which calve their young on its coastal plains. Stray moose browse in the dwarf willow flats. Polar bears also den on those plains, and up in the Brooks Range above the plains one of the densest populations of barren-ground grizzly bears holds court.

The rivers are brimming with char, a red-orange-fleshed member of the salmon family, and grayling, a troutlike species with a strikingly-big dorsal fin.

Countless millions of waterfowl, waterbirds, shorebirds, and songbirds nest on the boggy tundra flats by the sea, and in the brief, riotous summer, the land is carpeted with a dizzying profusion of cottongrass and wildflowers, perfuming the air in sweet suffocation.

It is hot, or cold, wet, dry, climatologically a desert, and insufferably choked with clouds of mosquitoes in summer. The light, because of the low angles of the 24-hour summer sunshine, and the silence, because of the lack of man-made noise, are profound, both religious experiences.

Two author-explorers give excellent accounts of what it is like to be in such places - Jonathan Waterman, "Where Mountains Are Nameless" (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc), and Ted Kerasote, "Out There" (Voyageur Press). Both books are just out and will stimulate thinking and dreaming about the last, great, truly wild places and why preserving some of them is elemental to humanity.

The foregoing words are an attempt to set the scene for today's (Tuesday), Arctic Refuge Action Day, and for an even bigger day later this fall, when our federal lawmakers will consider a back-door effort to drill for oil in the refuge. At issue is the refuge's area, a 1.5-million-acre expanse of coastal plain that was gerry- mandered out of wilderness status 25 years ago so that the oil question could be settled.

Today's events, an attempt to galvanize public support to preserve the refuge from drilling, are set for the west front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Details can be viewed by visiting the Web site

As for the politics:

Time and again, Big Oil has tried to grab enough politicians to have its way, even though the most optimistic forecasts of refuge reserves would feed America's oil gluttony for the equivalent of only a few months. It would take 10 years to produce the first drop and 20 to reach peak production - if the aging, corroded, leaking Alaska Oil Pipeline from Prudhoe Bay, 80 miles west of the refuge, does not first sink into failing permafrost, which slowly is melting, possibly because of global warming.

Time and again across administrations and Congresses both Republican and Democrat, the American public has said no to drilling in the refuge. Even the current Republican-dominated Congress, with an eager Oil Man in the White House, failed to include drilling in its energy bill in July. But back-door political shenanigans promise to insert it into a budget reconciliation bill in the weeks ahead. The drilling cannot stand on its merits, but that doesn't stop the flow of simple, oily greed.

Some points to remember:

- When you hear glowing descriptions of the small "footprint" of modern, new drilling technology - only 2,000 acres among the 1.5 million - think of a spiderweb. A spiderweb, if you simply tote up the area of its actual silk strands, may cover the barest fraction of a square inch, this though the web may stretch across many square feet. So it will be with the spiderweb effect of tote roads, drilling pads, helipads, pipeline and service roads, sump pits, spill ponds, housing, machine shops, and more.

- America has only three percent, or less, of the world's proven oil reserves, all told, and it uses 25 percent of the world's oil. We are leveraged, eightfold, and will be dependent on imports as long as our national leaders fail again and again, as they have for 25 years, to really lead in terms of finding the way to meaningful energy conservation. We could halve our hoggish use of gasoline alone and save a lot of oil-need, and dollars, by doubling vehicle fuel efficiency.

- The outfall of Hurricane Katrina has nothing to do with this, other than that some politicians will try to use it as an excuse to drill. All Katrina has done, again, is show the failures in leadership toward achieving long-term solutions.

Pete Rafle, a spokesman for The Wilderness Society, perhaps sums it up best:

"These bad ideas never die. But these (Big Oil) guys only have to win once, and it's over."


Contact Blade outdoors writer Steve Pollick at spollick(at)
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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