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Fight for oil in Alaska may affect Great Lakes

Article courtesy the TOLEDO BLADE

December 7, 2001

In both distance and culture, Faith Gemmill grew up in a corner of America that is about as far away as anyone can get from 21st century Toledo.

Raised in northern Alaska, above the Arctic Circle, she is part of the Gwich’in Nation, an ancient group of 10,000 Native Americans who rely on porcupine caribou for 80 percent of their diet. For generations, Gwich’ins have made clothes from the animal’s hides and tools from its bones. Even today, they claim a spiritual bond reminiscent of the connection other Native Americans once had with buffalo, believing their hearts are part caribou and that caribou hearts are part Gwich’in.

"In our creation stories, we believe we came from the caribou," Ms. Gemmill said. She hails from Vashraii K’oo, now known as Arctic Village - part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The wildlife refuge, known as ANWR, has long been the focus of a national debate over oil, but anxiety has risen since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Nobody denies there is oil. As many as 10 billion barrels could be feasibly recovered, but only if market conditions are just right. Considering that America burns up more than 19 million barrels a day and that energy demands are on the rise, though, the refuge might not have enough oil to supply the country even for one year.

The debate is whether the benefits outweigh the risks - and what kind of precedent would be set for other ecologically sensitive regions, such as the Great Lakes.

"If they get permission to drill in ANWR, it’s open season on any sensitive area. ANWR is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak," warned Tim Eder, spokesman for the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes office in Ann Arbor.

President Bush recently signed into law a two-year moratorium that Congress passed this year against expanded drilling beneath the Great Lakes on the U.S. side.

But environmentalists know their fight to protect the world’s largest source of fresh water is far from over. Earlier this year, Vice President Dick Cheney endorsed Michigan Gov. John Engler’s quest to issue more drilling leases for natural gas beneath the lakes.

Mr. Bush’s view on ANWR is vastly different than his view on the Great Lakes. He has made ANWR a focal point of his national energy policy, saying it is a region where drilling must occur to help reduce America’s ongoing reliance on foreign oil.

The House responded by making ANWR drilling part of the energy bill it passed in August. The debate has moved to the Senate, where U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski (R., Alaska) continues to push an energy bill he introduced in February that would include ANWR drilling. On Monday, the Senate voted 94-1 to postpone a decision on ANWR until next year.

To Ms. Gemmill, ANWR is a tranquil, picturesque haven where polar bears, grizzlies, moose, and wolves roam in the shadows of Alaska’s majestic mountains and rivers. The region, which includes coastal plains that environmentalists have dubbed as "America’s Serengeti," also is home to large, shaggy beasts known as musk oxen as well as wolverine, arctic fox, Dall sheep, wolves, and as many as 180 species of birds, ranging from tiny plovers to loons to snow geese to peregrine falcons.

The focus is on the caribou herd. Estimated at 129,000 animals, the herd migrates there to give birth and raise young each spring.

Drilling there would mean "a way of life that’s going to be lost," Ms. Gemmill said.

Not all Native Americans agree. The tiny village of Kaktovik (pop. 250), which lies at the tip of ANWR, wants jobs that would be created. Seventy-eight percent of those polled support drilling in ANWR.

Ohioan Tom Stewart also sees ANWR quite differently than the Gwich’ins. He views the northern section where drilling would occur as a barren wasteland.

"There’s nothing beautiful about it. It’s a frozen tundra," Mr. Stewart said. As executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, he is eager to expand domestic drilling for oil and natural gas, regardless whether that includes ecologically sensitive regions.

"It’s very simple. You’ve got to drill oil and gas where oil and gas is located," he said.

He says drilling techniques are far better than they were years ago, claiming no major spills - that is, none big enough to shut down operations - have been documented on the Ontario side of Lake Erie.

Canada has allowed drilling there since 1913, although the bulk of activity didn’t start until the 1960s.

Ontario uses far more slant drills to get below the lakebed than Michigan does with its land-based angle drills that have been beneath Lakes Michigan and Huron since 1979. The Ontario side of Lake Erie is the only place in the region where offshore rigs are allowed in the water. Canada does not allow drilling for oil from offshore rigs, only natural gas, but - like Michigan - gets some oil on a limited basis from its land-based angle drills.

Mr. Stewart said he doesn’t see a strong connection between ANWR and the Great Lakes. ANWR’s attractiveness is steeped in oil, whereas the Great Lakes have mostly natural gas. The lakes don’t have enough oil to make drilling here profitable for major oil companies, Mr. Stewart said.

Alaska’s North Slope has been coveted by oil companies for decades, with some drilling west of Prudhoe Bay for years.

ANWR, a sprawling tract of 19 million acres, is about the size of South Carolina. It is the only place along Alaska’s northern shoreline where Congress prohibits drilling.

Federal protection dates to 1960, when former President Dwight Eisenhower designated much of the northeast corner as the Arctic Range. His interior secretary at the time, Fred Seaton, called it "one of the world’s great wildlife areas." Two decades later, just before leaving office, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill that doubled the size of the range, renamed it ANWR, and declared that no drilling should be considered there. The exception was the 1002 Area, which has technically been considered an area for additional study since 1980.

The subject of countless drilling studies, the 1002 Area encompasses 1.5 million acres, less than 8 percent of the refuge. Mr. Murkowski claims 250,000 jobs could be created and that the federal government could reap nearly $3 billion in oil royalties, while limiting impact to as little as 2,000 acres along the shoreline. Activists hotly dispute those economic forecasts and note the impact will spread as access roads are built to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

Commonly called the Alaska pipeline, the structure begins near the Arctic Ocean at Prudhoe Bay and carries oil to tankers at the Port of Valdez 800 miles to the south.

Security has been heightened in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, in part because an intoxicated gunman proved on Oct. 4 how vulnerable the structure is to vandalism. Authorities charged Daniel Carson Lewis, 37, for a spill of 285,000 gallons of crude oil. They said he fired a shot into the pipeline in the wilderness 75 miles north of Fairbanks, an event which U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton described as "flabbergasting."

Weeks later, six men from the Middle East were stopped while driving in the Midwest with photographs of the Alaska pipeline. Details are sketchy, but one report claims authorities also found the men carrying photographs of a nuclear plant in Florida, as well as box cutters. FBI officials reportedly were angered to learn the Immigration and Naturalization Service released the suspects after determining their passports were valid and that the men had entered the United States legally.

Some activists question the logic in having more oil flow down the Alaska pipeline, given security concerns.

Mr. Stewart points to the downward spiral America has been on for years, with its continued reliance on foreign oil. Energy records show the U.S. has been getting more of its oil from Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela in recent years, but is still far from shaking itself from the Middle East’s grip.

"There’s only one thing to fund terrorists and that’s the oil we buy from those people," Mr. Stewart said.

The caribou herd that the Gwich’ins rely on appears headed for tough times, whether or not ANWR is opening for drilling.

Canadian biologist Dan Rossell said the central Arctic herd has been declining steadily for years, possibly a result of global warming that has altered breeding conditions. "So it’s really on the edge," he said, explaining that caribou are moving further north and becoming more reliant on the extreme northern habitat that ANWR provides.

In 1998, the U.S. Geological Survey released an $18 million study of the refuge’s projected oil reserves. The report concluded ANWR probably has from 16 billion to 42 billion barrels of oil.

Ken Boyd, who stepped down as director of the Alaska DNR’s oil and gas division in January, said he figures there are roughly 10 billion barrels that are "recoverable," meaning there is a lot of oil which isn’t feasible to extract. A myth about oil is that it pools up beneath the Earth, waiting to be drawn to the surface in a straw-like manner. On the contrary, oil has to be extracted from rocks that hold it like sponges. You never get it all, he said.

Ten billion barrels would be enough to roughly double the current flow along the Alaska pipeline for about 25 years.

But even though the Alaska pipeline was built to reduce America’s reliance on foreign oil, not all the oil it carries has stayed in the United States.

In 1995, Congress allowed surplus oil from Alaska’s North Slope to be exported to Japan and other overseas countries. Senator Murkowski claims only 5 percent of the total was exported over a four-year period, and that the need for exporting any more of Alaska’s oil has been eliminated as a result of recent oil company mergers.

Activists say the glut - regardless how temporary - speaks volumes. How can President Bush claim opening ANWR to drilling is a matter of national security if there was enough oil produced in Alaska to be exported?

One reason is the cost of distribution.

Pam Miller, spokeswoman for an Anchorage group called Arctic Connections, said a glut of oil on the West Coast will not necessarily lower prices in the Midwest, because oil is too expensive to ship this far.

She agreed ANWR drilling would set a national precedent that could hurt the Great Lakes. "If the oil companies are allowed to go into this special place, the other special places will be next," Ms. Miller said.
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