A Conflict of Values in the Arctic -The battle over oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

August 6, 2003

By Robert Bidinotto


Award-winning reporter Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times has been vacationing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, trying to decide for himself whether the place ought to be opened up to oil drilling. His reports from this environmental battlefield reveal a man torn by value conflicts...conflicts that mirror those in our wider culture.

Unless you've been living under a rock somewhere in that wilderness, you're probably aware of just how polarizing the drilling controversy has become.

In one camp are those who believe that--at a time of America's energy dependence on unreliable, often hostile foreign oil producers--it is idiotic not to develop our own domestic oil resources. The refuge, government land with vast untapped reserves, is an obvious choice for development, which the Bush administration firmly supports.

In the other camp looms the entire environmentalist establishment, which has never discovered a resource it wants to develop, nor developer it likes.

Kristof has thus far sent back two dispatches. In the first, he revealed that among the eager supporters of the oil drilling were most of the local Eskimos themselves.

"They want better schools, better jobs and more comfortable lives, and most believe that oil drilling is the way to achieve that," Kristof reported. "Some resent the idea that American environmentalists 5,000 miles away want to lock them forever in a quaint wilderness, just for the psychic value of knowing that it is there."

Funny thing, isn't it, how environmentalists--who usually rhapsodize about the simple values and practices of "native cultures"--are so willing to ride roughshod over those cultures when they aspire to anything beyond primitivism and poverty.

And Kristof appears to be among the primitivism worshippers. Despite the needs of the locals, he has other, more profound concerns.

"This land is the last untouched bit of America, and if we develop it we will have robbed our descendants of the chance ever to see our country as it originally was. There is something deeply moving about backpacking through land where humans are interlopers and bears are kings."

Deeply moving, that is, if you're a well-heeled superstar journalist for a big newspaper, soon to be wafted back to New York by a waiting plane--and not a poor local Eskimo trying to survive and provide for your family.

In his second dispatch, Kristof reveals that his value conflict has nothing to do with the scientific persuasiveness of environmentalist scare scenarios about the alleged ecological horrors that development would inflict.

"It's true, as the oil industry says, that drilling, if it occurred, would be confined to the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain in a refuge of 19.5 million acres. And frankly," he admits, "the coastal plain is the least picturesque--mostly just barren tundra."

Moreover: "Drilling technology has improved tremendously in ways that could limit the damage. In 1970 it took a 65-acre above-ground presence to extract oil from 2,010 acres at a depth of 10,000 feet. At one recent Alaska installation, Alpine Pad 2, a 13-acre pad extracts oil from 32,154 acres."

Conclusion? "I believe that the environmentalists exaggerate the damage that drilling would do to the wildlife. The fact is that humans and animals can coexist. Around Prudhoe Bay, the center for oil drilling west of here, caribou, grizzly and polar bears, and even musk oxen are also plentiful. The same is true of the area around the two permanent native villages to the north and south of the refuge, Kaktovik and Arctic Village. Indeed, Kaktovik sometimes has polar bears on its airstrip, and a grizzly was found last year on the second floor of the Prudhoe Bay Hotel."

So let's sum up. We're not talking about developing the whole refuge, but only a barren area near the coast deficient even in aesthetic appeal. Oil companies would use only a tiny portion of that wasteland. And experience has shown that the wildlife in nearby areas haven't been harmed at all by previous oil drilling and development, even using technology far less sophisticated and more intrusive than would be used in the refuge.

Bottom line: we could get the oil with no negative impact on the environment; we could boost the local economy, something local native Americans want and need; and--at a time when Arab oil-producer states are also producing a deadly flow of anti-Americanism and terrorism--we could help liberate ourselves from our energy dependence on them.

A slam dunk, right?

Apparently not. Kristof continues:

"A few months ago a major panel of scientists, oil consultants and environmentalists ended a two-year study of the impact of oil drilling on the Arctic coast. It concluded that wildlife had adapted well to drilling, but that the land itself and the sense of wilderness were far more vulnerable." [emphasis added]

So there it is. Development would affect "the land itself and the sense of wilderness." In other words, if you use something, you change it.

Well...duh.

Freezing and hungry in his tent on the coastal tundra--temporarily--visitor Kristof still finds the barren void "majestic" for its "pristine loveliness." Of course, since this is merely a brief vacation trip for him, he can no doubt appreciate all the ice and fog much more enthusiastically than can the Eskimos who will remain stuck there freezing, long after his plane departs.

"All week, we've seen no sign of humans in the refuge, not even footprints," Kristof marvels. "This is a rare place where humans feel not like landlords or even tenants, but simply guests.

"And that's an issue," he concludes. "As an oil industry geologist told me: 'We can build cleanly, and we can drill without hurting the caribou. But we can't drill and keep this a wilderness. So that's the choice: Do you want drilling and oil, or do you want to keep this a wilderness?'"

Yes--that's the issue. Which comes first: human values, well-being, and interests--or the abstract notion that "pristine" nature has intrinsic value as an end in itself?

Kristof promises to tell us which way he has decided his personal value conflict in his next dispatch. One can hardly wait.

In the meantime, though, how will Americans decide theirs?


 

RELATED STORY:

What Price Drilling?

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
New York Times

9/5/03


ARCTIC NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Alaska In March, Interior Secretary Gale Norton described this area as a "flat

Still, I believe that the environmentalists exaggerate the damage that drilling would do to the wildlife. The fact is that humans and animals can coexist. Around Prudhoe Bay, the center for oil drilling west of here, caribou, grizzly and polar bears, and even musk oxen are also plentiful. The same is true of the area around the two permanent native villages to the north and south of the refuge, Kaktovik and Arctic Village.

white nothingness" that could best be used as an oil spigot.

I thought about that as I rafted down a river here, a giant grizzly bear on my left and a herd of caribou on my right. A bit earlier, I had cooked lunch with my backpacking stove on a sandbar as four musk oxen, huge buffalo-like creatures, observed me as intently as I watched them.

A bush pilot set two friends and me down on a sandbar on Saturday just north of the Brooks Range, and since then we've been rafting and hiking through this wilderness, perhaps the wildest place left on earth. I want to understand this land whose future is hotly debated, mostly by people who haven't seen it and figure out whether it should be opened to Big Oil.

Here on the ground, it's obvious that this refuge, far from being a barren wasteland, is actually teeming with wildlife, even as winter begins. At one spot, I saw grizzly and wolf tracks side by side, a tribute to the way this South Carolina-sized refuge preserves a patch of America as it was before Europeans arrived.

Moreover, the animals seem completely unused to humans. The first time we spotted a distant herd of caribou, we hauled in our raft downwind and crept up silently. Finally the caribou spotted us, and immediately approached for a closer look. They seemed to be trying to determine whether we were pitifully deformed caribou, and I think the females were encouraging the males to ask us for directions to the rest of the herd as it headed south.

The same thing happened when we sailed our raft as close as we dared to the first musk ox we saw, which came in for a closer look and called its pals to share the excitement. This land is truly an Arctic Serengeti.

Still, I believe that the environmentalists exaggerate the damage that drilling would do to the wildlife. The fact is that humans and animals can coexist. Around Prudhoe Bay, the center for oil drilling west of here, caribou, grizzly and polar bears, and even musk oxen are also plentiful. The same is true of the area around the two permanent native villages to the north and south of the refuge, Kaktovik and Arctic Village.

Indeed, Kaktovik sometimes has polar bears on its airstrip, and a grizzly was found last year on the second floor of the Prudhoe Bay Hotel.

A few months ago a major panel of scientists, oil consultants and environmentalists ended a two-year study of the impact of oil drilling on the Arctic coast. It concluded that wildlife had adapted well to drilling, but that the land itself and the sense of wilderness were far more vulnerable.

Drilling technology has improved tremendously in ways that could limit the damage. In 1970 it took a 65-acre above-ground presence to extract oil from 2,010 acres at a depth of 10,000 feet. At one recent Alaska installation, Alpine Pad 2, a 13-acre pad extracts oil from 32,154 acres. But still, the tundra is exceptionally sensitive vehicle ruts from decades ago are still visible. The oil presence and the security that would go with it would fundamentally change the area.

It's true, as the oil industry says, that drilling, if it occurred, would be confined to the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain in a refuge of 19.5 million acres. And frankly, the coastal plain is the least picturesque mostly just barren tundra. But as I write this with numb fingers, I'm wrapped in my sleeping bag in my tent on that coastal tundra, and it's still majestic and I've seen more wildlife in the area that would be drilled than in the hills and mountains I traversed upriver.

I confess that there are times when the rapids drench the raft and turn my feet into blocks of ice, when the chilling fog obliterates a view of anything when I'd be ready to trade this landscape to Big Oil for a hot drink and a pizza. But then I warm up, the sun comes out, the mountains emerge from the fog, the caribou approach, and this land warms my heart with its pristine loveliness.

All week, we've seen no sign of humans in the refuge, not even footprints. This is a rare place where humans feel not like landlords or even tenants, but simply guests.

And that's an issue. As an oil industry geologist told me: "We can build cleanly, and we can drill without hurting the caribou. But we can't drill and keep this a wilderness. So that's the choice: Do you want drilling and oil, or do you want to keep this a wilderness?"

My answer? Stay tuned for my next column.


 

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