ANWR Community Split on Oil Exploration

The U.S. Senate will soon vote on a budget bill that contains a provision to allow drilling in the Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Debate over oil exploration in the delicate and remote habitat has been going on for 20 years — Alex Chadwick discussed the upcoming vote with Elizabeth Arnold, who's just returned from a visit to a native community inside the refuge that's also split on whether or not to allow drilling.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

In Congress, attention has now shifted to the House in the debate over whether to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, up in Alaska. Last week, the Senate passed a budget bill that included an ANWR provision, and drilling proponents believe they have never been closer to winning what has been a 20-year fight over this resource. Elizabeth Arnold has just returned from the refuge area.

Elizabeth, in recent years, any number of proposals to allow drilling in ANWR have passed in the House and died in the Senate. But things are different this time around.

ELIZABETH ARNOLD reporting:

Well, Alex, the reason it squeaked through the Senate last week is because it was stuck in a budget bill. It couldn't pass as a stand-alone measure because you need 60 votes to stop an almost certain filibuster. So this time, they stuck it in a budget bill, which only needs a simple majority. But the very reason it was able to pass in the Senate is what's going to cause trouble in the House, because there are any number of Republicans there who don't like the fact that it's in a budget bill. It's policy. It should pass on its own merits, and that alone may cause them to vote against it. So it's by no means a done deal.

CHADWICK: Where were you up in the refuge? I mean, this is an area that's often described as barren tundra, but you were in some sort of community, weren't you?

ARNOLD: There is a community, quite a few people who live up there and have for thousands of years, and I'd say the sentiment within the Alaskan native community and where I was in the community of Kaktovik is the biggest change I've noticed over the last two decades. It's always been generalized that the Gwich'in Indians, who don't actually live on the coastal plain but are along the migration corridor of the caribou that calve in the refuge, that they're the only ones who oppose drilling, and that the Inupiat Eskimos are all in favor of drilling since they stand to gain financially. That's really shifted, Alex. One reason is oil development in other parts of the Arctic.

There's a village called Nuiqsut which is near one of the industry's model oil fields; development there has really spread, and there are plans for more expansion. Now this village is hemmed in. You can see oil infrastructure, drill pads and pipelines in three directions. And places where these folks traditionally hunt are getting squeezed. In Kaktovik 10 years ago, very much in support of drilling. Now I'd say the community is split. They look at a place like Nuiqsut and say, `That could be us in 10 years.'

CHADWICK: And as you describe this village of Nuiqsut, that it--what--it looks like a kind of an industrial complex now?

ARNOLD: It's getting there. It really is. Kaktovik, which has been described as the wasteland, you know, it's 30 below, blowing snow sideways, Alex, but I have to say it's neither a wasteland that people who want to drill there describe it as; nor is it a Serengeti that the environmentalists use to describe it. Most Americans probably wouldn't want to live there. You look out in every direction, and you see sculpted snow and not much else. But there are also hunters heading out on snowmobiles to get their meat, and it's a place people call home.

You know, what's really happened, Alex, is this debate's become more symbol than substance. Over the years, oil industry--they've found other terrific prospects, just as the environmental community now admits there are other parts of the Arctic they're just as worried about. It's become this symbol. Open it up and it means industry can't be stopped anywhere. Keep it closed and the environmentalists will lock up everything. I mean, neither is true, but that's what the fight has become.

CHADWICK: Reporter Elizabeth Arnold, just back from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as the House of Representatives debates opening up that site for exploring for oil.

Elizabeth, thank you.

ARNOLD: Thank you, Alex.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.

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