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Battle Lines are Drawn; Government Fights Environmentalists for ANWR

Aired February 26, 2001 - 2:20 p.m. ET


NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Here's a look at the National Arctic Wildlife Reserve; it's a track of wilderness larger than South Carolina located in the northeast corner of Alaska. Today, Republican Senator Frank Murkowski of Alaska introduced a bill to open this national resource up to oil exploration. Oil speculators believe the wilderness is sitting on an 18-month supply of crude.

Of course, the senator's bill has already polarized into an debate; one that pits the energy lobby against environmentalists. But there's much more at stake. CNN's Mark Potter traveled north to Kaktovik, Alaska; here's his report.


MARK POTTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Fenton Rexford and an Inupiat Eskimo prepares for the autumn whale hunt in the Arctic Ocean. Like many villagers in Kaktovik, Alaska, he still clings to the age-old tradition of hunting for food. But in other ways, Kaktovik is very different now than it was a few decades ago when it was a collection of unheated shacks with no electricity or running water.

There are new homes. A police department. A modern school. Health care and other services. The reason: oil.

QUESTION: So, how do you look at oil?

FENTON REXFORD, CHAIRMAN, KAKTOVIK INUPIAT CORPORATION: Keeps me running. Keeping my warm and keeps my outboard motor running to go after food from the sea, from the ocean.

POTTER: In fact, Fenton Rexford is not only a whale hunter, he's chairman of Kaktovik's Village Corporation, an Eskimo company that owns 92 acres of coastal tundra, which Rexford wants to develop.

REXFORD: I want the oil; I want the gas, the natural gas, if I had to borrow to do that, go out and drill right now.

POTTER: And that has but he and his fellow Eskimos at odds with another native Alaskan culture. The Gwich'in Indians, who live 100 miles away on the south edge of the refuge. They, too, are hunters and fear oil development will threaten their way of life. And ruin the land they hold say sacred. FAITH GIMMELL: In our language we call it the sacred place where life begins.

POTTER: The Inupiat Eskimos and Gwich'in Indians find themselves in the heart of the country's biggest land battle over pristine wilderness environmentalists call America's Serengetti.

With braided rivers, rugged mountains, and coastal plain, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, known as ANWR is one of America's most spectacular places still barely touched by man.

It is the size of South Carolina. 19 million acres in the remote northeast corner of Alaska. ANWR is home to polar bears, musk oxen, wolves, and flocks of migratory birds. Its neuro-coastal plain is also the calving ground for 130,000 strong migratory caribou heard.

DANIEL ZATZ: The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is just an incredible jewel. It is the wildest place left in America. It is an incredible natural area.

POTTER: The battle lines are clearly drawn.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president believes strongly that we need to develop our own national energy resources. He will push ahead to develop 8 percent of the national wildlife refuge in Alaska.

RODGER SCHLICKEISEN, PRESIDENT, DEFENDERS OF WILDLIFE: We will be out there massively responding to this, and defenders of wildlife, among others, will be announcing a campaign for the arctic refuge -- to save the arctic refuge very shortly.

KEN BOYD, DIRECTOR, ALASKA OIL AND GAS DIVISION: It's the last great place to look in North America, and I think the country needs the oil.

FAITH GIMMELL: There is no compromise for our people. We don't want to lose anything.

POTTER: Congress created the refuge 20 years ago. At the time, it set aside one and a half million acres of coastal plain within ANWR to study its oil and gas potential. Seismic tests suggest ANWR's coastal plain may hold billions of barrels of oil. Estimates range between a 6 and 30-month supply for the country, but nobody really knows for sure, and only Congress can approve further testing and development in the refuge.

Republican Senator Frank Murkowski of Alaska says, it's time to find out how much oil actually exists there, as domestic supplies decline and imports rise.

SEN. FRANK MURKOWSKI (R), ALASKA: I think the American people have to know and be prepared for the train wreck that's coming, because the American people are going to get that gas bill, they are going to get that electric bill, and they are going to blame government. MURKOWSKI: We have always been concerned about increasing dependence of oil.

POTTER: Murkowski chairs the Senate Energy Committee. He's leading the drive on Capitol Hill to open the coastal plain.

MURKOWSKI: We do it domestically, or overseas? Or are we better off to come to my state, to open up our coastal plain to oil and gas exploration, where we have already got an 800-mile pipeline that is only operating at half capacity. Keep the jobs, keep the dollars at home.

POTTER: For the past two decades, nearly a quarter of America's oil production comes from Alaska's north slope, most of it from Prudhoe Bay, 60 miles from the refuge.

Industry supporters say it would be easy to revive production by pumping oil from the wildlife refuge. That outrages environmentalists and government officials like Jamie Clark, the former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

CLARK: It's a place where wildlife comes first.

QUESTION: So when you hear someone say first, let's go in there and drill for oil, what's your gut reaction?

CLARK: It would be irreparable damage for little to no gain.

MURKOWSKI: They don't accept the responsibility of where our oil is going to come from. Well, is it going to come from Colombia, or is it going to come from Saddam Hussein? That's not in their ballpark. It happens to be in mine.

POTTER: Polls show most Alaskans favor drilling in the refuge.

BOYD: Oil remains the most important thing for us, our natural resource.

POTTER: Ken boyd is the director of the state's oil and gas division. He says oil drives Alaska's economy.

BOYD: Oil has been the lifeblood of Alaska, if you like. It's, you know -- 70 percent to 80 percent of our income comes from royalties in taxes and rents and bonuses and what have you.

POTTER: The Alaskan oil industry has generated $45 billion for the state since 1978. Each year, every Alaskan gets an oil dividend check from the state.

OLIVER LEAVITT: Before the oil, the north slope was like a big ghetto. It was worse than third-world countries.

POTTER: Oliver Leavitt is chairman of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, a company owned by all 7,000 Eskimos on Alaska's north slope. The company provides support services to the Alaskan oil industry. It reported revenues of nearly $900 million in 1998 alone. LEAVITT: Our big fear is that one day the oil runs out and we don't have another industry. There's nothing to maintain our schools, our hospitals, our fire protection, our police protection. There will be no more jobs.

POTTER: The Eskimos stand to reap a potential windfall if drilling is allowed to proceed within ANWR, but as it stands now, their land in the refuge can't be developed.

REXFORD: We're locked out of our own resources. We're refugees. We're refugees of our own resources. We can't -- we can't even touch our own land.

POTTER: But ANWR is federal land, not state land.

CLARK: The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of America's finest national wildlife refuges. It doesn't belong to Alaska alone. It belongs to all of us.

POTTER: Including the Gwich'in Indians, who have joined environmentalists to oppose drilling in ANWR. The word Gwich'in means "people of the caribou." They are subsistence hunters who rely on caribou meat to survive the harsh winter.

The Gwich'in fear oil development in the refuge will shrink the herd and cause it to shift its migration routes away from native settlements.

The caribou play a central role in the Gwich'in's spiritual beliefs. Faith Gimmell says without caribou, the Gwich'in culture would wither away.

GIMMELL: It's the same as with the Plains Indian tribes. When they lost the buffalo, they lost many aspects of their culture that were vital to their survival as a people. That's what we feel will happen to our people. Our social problems would rise and we would be a broken people.

POTTER: Supporters of oil drilling say environmental concerns are overstated. They say the animals have learned to adapt to oil development.

BOYD: I don't buy the caribou argument, because I've been up here when there's just caribou running all through Deadhorse and through the Prudhoe Bay oil fields.

POTTER: The oil industry says exploration would be done in winter, when few animals are around.

MURKOWSKI: We know an awful lot about the Arctic, and we know how to drill and build ice roads that we didn't know 30 years ago. And we can take the necessary precautions. We have enough science and technology to know in advance that we can manage this resource.

BOYD: Over 20 years, development on the slope, I think the companies have learned to do things right. They've shrunk the footprint of development.

POTTER: But critics believe that so-called footprint will inevitably lead to industrial sprawl, spoiling the land forever.

CLARK: Developing the coastal plain drives a stake right to the heart of ANWR.

POTTER: The argument boils down to values: the value of wilderness, the value of oil. In a refuge where geologists aren't even sure how much may lies beneath the coastal plain.

BOYD: Everybody knows the arguments. It's now, I don't like it and I'm never going to like it, versus, I think we need to develop it.

Mark Potter, CNN, Kaktovik, Alaska.




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