TCS Daily


The Slick Politics of ANWR Oil Exploration

By Paul Driessen - November 26, 2001 12:00 AM

A new North American Indian-controlled oil and gas drilling company was recently formed to provide oilfield services in northwestern Canada, adjacent to Alaska. The company will create investment and business opportunities, employment and training for tribal members, and it expects to start operations this winter, expanding oil and gas development activities in the Arctic region.

This new enterprise is called Gwich`in Oilfield Services and the majority owner is the Gwich`in Indians Tribal Council. If that seems odd, it's because the Gwich`in Indians in Alaska have for years been poster children for opposition to oil exploration in the flat, featureless coastal plain of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Drilling in ANWR, it is alleged, would upset the caribou herds the Gwich'in rely upon for their livelihood and harm the Gwich'in lifestyle.

The Gwich`in Tribal Council plans to drill in a 1.4-million-acre area in the Mackenzie River delta area that is governed by the Indians. The proposed drill sites -- and a potential pipeline route -- are just east of a major migratory path, where the caribou often birth their calves.

So what's going on?

The picture starts to become clear when one remembers that the Gwich'in opposition to Alaskan oil exploration isn't based on principle. In fact, it's a 180-degree turn from an earlier position held by tribal members. Back in the 1980s, the Alaska Gwich`in leased 1.8 million acres of their tribal lands for oil development. And nowhere in their lease proposal did they require restrictions to protect the caribou herds. Sadly for the Gwich'in, no oil was found.

The Alaskan Gwich'in live some 250 miles from the coastal plain, if one travels along the route caribou follow in migrating to and from ANWR. As the crow flies, the Alaskan Village of the Gwich'in is 140 miles away, across the all-but-impassable Brooks Range. Those majestic mountains - the ones seen in all the ads and news stories opposing ANWR oil exploration - are 30 to 50 miles from the coastal plain. In reality, exploration on public and Inupiat Indian lands hundreds of miles away doesn't threaten the Gwich'in lifestyle. But the Gwich'in -- nearly 90% of whom live in Canada, with only 800 living in Alaska -- don't stand to benefit directly from ANWR exploration, either, so they're opposed to it.

Contrast the feelings of Gwich'in with Native American Indians who actually live in ANWR. They want the same benefits the Gwich'in now seek in Canada. As Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation president Fenton Rexford notes, the Inupiat Eskimos are tired of using 5-gallon buckets for sanitation, because they don't have toilets, running water or a sewer system. They support exploration by an 8 to 1 margin.

Government geologists say ANWR could contain as much as 16 billion barrels of recoverable oil. That's enough to replace all U.S. Persian Gulf imports for 10 years or more. At peak production levels, it could provide 10% of total U.S. oil needs. Developing this critically needed energy could also create 735,000 jobs, save the U.S. from having to send hundreds of billions of dollars to OPEC, and generate tens of billions in royalty and tax revenues to go to defense and rebuilding efforts.

All these benefits would result in the disturbance of about 2,000 acres - roughly twice as much land as was impacted by the terrorist attack on New York City's Twin Towers - in a coastal plain the size of Delaware and a refuge the size of South Carolina. And any drilling would be done in the dead of winter, using ice airstrips, roads and platforms that will melt when spring arrives.

Our dependence on Persian Gulf oil has, in part, made us vulnerable to the depravity and evil of Osama bin Laden. It's time to begin the process of weaning ourselves from dependence on huge quantities of Gulf oil while the region remains a hotbed of hostility to U.S. interests. And it's time to toss bogus anti-oil arguments on the ash heap of history, and support exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Paul Driessen is a senior policy analyst for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow and principal of Global-Comm Partners in Fairfax, VA.

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