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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

The National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska is a little known tract of federal land being looked at by the Clinton administration with consideration of opening it up to oil and gas exploration. Earlier this month Living on Earth's Peter Thomson travelled with Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt to the region, and in an interview with Steve Curwood, tells us what he discovered.


CURWOOD: You may have heard about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska's far northeastern coast, but chances are the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska doesn't ring a bell. This little-known tract of Federal land is being looked at by the Clinton Administration, which is thinking about opening it up to oil and gas exploration. Earlier this month, Living on Earth's Peter Thomson traveled with Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt to the region. Peter just returned to his base in San Francisco, where he joins us, now. Hi there, Peter.

THOMSON: Hey, Steve.

CURWOOD: So tell me about this place, the National Petroleum Reserve. What's it like?

THOMSON: It's a huge tract on Alaska's northwestern coast, west of the oil fields in Prudhoe Bay. It's about 35 thousand square miles, that's almost the size of Indiana. Further to the east the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, which people are more familiar with, includes most of the coastline east of Prudhoe Bay. This includes even more of the coastline to the west of Prudhoe Bay. It was set up as a Navy petroleum reserve in the 1920s. I'll tell you, Steve, the landscape there is really otherworldly. It's vast, flat, pale green tundra stretching to the horizon. It's covered with lakes and rivers. It's saturated like a sponge in the summer time and frozen solid in the winters.

CURWOOD: And there's a lot of wildlife there, huh? Like big caribou herds and such?

THOMSON: Big caribou herds. Two caribou herds cross through the area well into the 7-figure range. It's also home to grizzly bears, polar bears, fish, dozens of species of shore birds and water fowl. At least 2 endangered birds, a couple of eider ducks.

CURWOOD: And people live there as well?

THOMSON: Yeah, about 5,000 Inupiat Eskimos have lived there for thousands of years, concentrated today in about 5 communities, the largest of which is Barrow, which is the northernmost community in the United States. They're no longer nomadic, but they're still dependent to a large degree on subsistence hunting.

CURWOOD: What led to the creation of this petroleum reserve somewhat 70 years ago?

THOMSON: Well, some early geological explorers found some oil seeps on the coastline there, and at the time of course all the Navy's ships were run on petroleum rather than nuclear power. Alaska was a territory then. The US Government could just basically just carve it out and say we're going to hold onto this. And they did. And it was transferred to the Interior Department in the 70s, still to be an oil reserve, although not for the Navy.

CURWOOD: Now, how much oil is there?

THOMSON: Well, nobody knows for sure. The best estimate is about 300 million barrels, although it's possible there's a whole lot more than that. It's nothing on the scale of the 12 billion barrels or so in Prudhoe Bay, but it's obviously worthy of attention. The problem is that the most likely reserves are concentrated in the same area as the most crucial wildlife populations.

CURWOOD: Okay. Now, it's been a reserve for the last 70 years. Why this year, right now, is Interior Secretary Babbitt talking about starting to drill there?

THOMSON: Well, that's the key question. The answer has to do with politics, technology, economics. Some leases were sold there in the early 80s, but they were never developed, in large part because the oil market collapsed. Since then, though, oil development on the state lands between the NPRA and the Arctic Wildlife Refuge has been moving west. New fields have been discovered and put into production. Also, the companies' ability to develop smaller and smaller deposits has improved. And the size or the footprint of every drilling platform has shrunken dramatically, which means that the companies have a stronger case now that they can develop the area without significant environmental impact. Meanwhile, Secretary Babbitt has basically told Alaska and the industry that the Arctic Refuge is off limits. They're not going to get in there as long as Clinton is President. And he's told them that they should look west for their new drilling sites. The reserve was set up expressly for petroleum development at the discretion of the Secretary of Interior. It's his call.

CURWOOD: Now, I have to guess that the Secretary of the Interior is getting a fair amount of political pressure to open up this petroleum reserve.

THOMSON: I think that that's fair to say.

CURWOOD: I mean, Alaska is so dependent on oil for its revenues. I mean, what does the state make, like 90, 85, 90 percent of its money on oil?

THOMSON: Something like that. There's no state income tax or sales tax. The huge majority of the state's income comes from oil revenues. And the end is in sight for Prudhoe Bay, and Alaskans are starting to get nervous. Their Republican delegation has been beating down the doors of the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, trying to get in there. Meanwhile, there's a Democratic governor, and he's very pro-oil as well. He's convinced that Alaska can do oil development right, as he likes to put it. There is some talk that the Clinton Administration wants to do the governor, Tony Knowles, a favor, by giving him what the Republicans have been unable to get, which is more oil for the state of Alaska. Governor Knowles and Secretary Babbitt say that's just not true, but it's just a logical time to start looking in the area.

CURWOOD: So, what do you think? Which way do you think the Secretary is leaning on this?

THOMSON: Well, for the record, he says he stands absolutely perpendicular on the issue. That he has not made up his mind one way or the other. And I really don't think he has, but he did say several things repeatedly, which I think are important to mention. He's very impressed with the oil companies' success in reducing their impact on the land. He's at least as impressed by the subsistence culture of the Eskimos and the need to preserve the wildlife that that depends on. And he repeated several times that he was less convinced by the oil companies' assurances that they could develop there without harm than the Eskimos themselves were. I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that we're going to see drilling there. The Secretary could have made this decision very quietly. He could have commissioned an environmental impact study be done by agency folks in Alaska. He could have stayed home in Washington and not drawn much attention to it. But he went to Alaska, and he decided to make a big issue out of it.

CURWOOD: How soon does he decide?

THOMSON: Well, officially the process is going to take about another year. There's a draft environmental impact statement due out this fall, then 9 months of comment, review, etc. Decision expected next August. Most of the communities up there, though, while they support drilling, don't want to go so fast. The environmentalists certainly don't want to go so fast at all, so it could take a lot longer than a year.

CURWOOD: Hey, Peter, thanks for taking this time with us. We're all looking forward to the documentary you're going to produce on this material in the next few weeks.

THOMSON: Okay. Thanks, Steve.

CURWOOD: Peter Thomson is Living on Earth's western bureau chief, speaking with us from San Francisco.



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