Special Report

Republicans Rediscover ANWR

A delegation of seven congressional challengers seizes on the hottest issue of Campaign '08.

By 7.18.08

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The term ANWR, the abbreviation for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, has been thrust into the lexicon of daily American use in light of increased global energy demands and soaring energy costs at home. ANWR has become the Maginot Line for environmentalists and their Congressional supporters. Environmentalists have successfully fought a nearly three-decade long battle to prohibit drilling for oil in the petroleum-rich region. The entire refuge has been portrayed as an idyllic slice of American wilderness filled with colorful fauna, grazing wildlife, and babbling brooks nestled among majestic mountains. This caricature has all of the trappings of a Disney movie backdrop.

ANWR does include some of those splendorous images -- and a bit of everything else. At about 19.5 million acres, ANWR is the size of the state of South Carolina. Located in Alaska's northeast corner and stretching from that state's northern coast along the frigid Arctic Ocean to two hundred miles south, ANWR includes a broad spectrum of Alaskan wilderness. The spectacular geography of the southern three-quarters of ANWR is offset by the flat, barren and desolate northern slope along the coast. The two contrasting landscapes are separated by the Brooks Mountain Range running east and west.

The section of ANWR known as Area 10-02 is about 1.2 million acres in size and includes a sliver of about 2,000 acres identified for oil extraction. "It is the equivalent," said Craig Williams, "of a postage stamp on a football field." Williams graduated from high school in Alaska and has family that lives in the state, but he now lives in Pennsylvania. A candidate for Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District, Williams and six other U.S. House candidates traveled to ANWR and the neighboring region on July 15-16 to get a first-hand look at the subject of so much controversy.

Area 10-02 got its name from section 1002 of the "Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act," legislation passed and signed into law in December 1980 by a lame duck Congress and President Jimmy Carter, following the landslide victory by Ronald Reagan. The Act set aside more than 75 million acres of Alaska territory as federally protected public lands in order to prevent state and local development. Section 1002 specifically established the guidelines for oil exploration in the region.

Joining Williams were congressional candidates Paul Stark (Wisconsin-3), Luke Puckett (Indiana-2), Greg Goode (Indiana-8), Mike Sodrel (Indiana-9), Chris Lien (South Dakota-AL), and Jason Chaffetz (Utah-3). Five of the seven are challenging incumbent members of Congress who vehemently oppose developing oil excavation in Area 10-02. Chaffetz is running for a vacant seat after defeating incumbent Chris Cannon in the Republican primary and Puckett's opponent, Rep. Joe Donnelly, recently abandoned his opposition to ANWR drilling.

The logistics involved in traveling to ANWR were very complicated, underscoring the remoteness of the region. Adrian Herrera, an Alaskan official with the not-for-profit group Arctic Power, helped plan the trip. Hiring a private aircraft to complete the journey and survey Area 10-02 was a virtual necessity, without having to resort to a multi-day, rugged overland trip.

THE CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATES also visited Prudhoe Bay, approximately 75 miles to the west of Area 10-02 and the site of the existing Alaska oil pipeline that would be used to carry ANWR oil. Oil excavation has been under way in Prudhoe Bay since 1977. The men wanted to inspect a current oil drilling operation to see if it was the ecological disaster environmentalists claim will befall Area 10-02.

"There was no environmental degradation. The area was pristine," said Stark. "I was impressed with the care the oil companies undertake to protect the environment. They even place giant diapers under the vehicles in order to capture anything that could possibly fall." Oil drilling is conducted only in the winter using ice roads in order not to disturb the tundra. They are no roads to many of the facilities during the non-winter months.

According to Stark, oil workers are fined if they violate any rules that safeguard the environment or the wildlife, such as not bringing a vehicle to a complete stop and turning off the engine if caribou are present. A second violation brings immediate dismissal.

Williams was similarly impressed in spite of confiding that he was a bit skeptical before he made the trip. What he witnessed was more remarkable than what he had anticipated. "These people are responsible stewards of the environment," he said. Williams noted that the latest technology will allow ANWR drilling to occupy a significantly smaller area of land than the 1970s technology that was used to develop Prudhoe Bay. "The footprint is tiny, truly tiny," he said. "It is pencil dot on full page of paper."

Leaseholders BP Oil and Conoco-Phillips are currently pumping 750,000 barrels each day (from a 1980s high of two million barrels daily) from the Prudhoe Bay fields, with a reserve estimated to have been in excess of 15 billion barrels. Area 10-02 is believed to hold even larger petroleum reserves.

Suggestions that 10-02 is an area rich in wildlife and abundant vegetation are flat-out wrong, observed Herrera. "Ten-oh-two is located along the coastal plain, north of the Brooks Mountain Range. It is flat and the actual ground is peat tundra," said Herrera. "There are no trees and no permanent wildlife. The caribou do not have regular migratory patterns. They have passed through the area four times in the last ten years. It is rather desolate."

THE ONLY SETTLEMENT in Area 10-02 is the City of Kaktovik, situated about 150 miles to the east of Prudhoe Bay. Kaktovik is an island community of about 280 native Kaktovikmiut people (often referred to as "Inuit") just off the mainland in the Arctic Ocean. The lifestyle in Kaktovik is harsh by any standard. Kaktovik acquired running water and flush toilets only four years ago. Winter lasts for eight months. Nearly three of those months the area is plunged into total darkness. Summer is fleeting, lasting only about six weeks. The Area 10-02 tundra sits on hundreds of feet of permafrost. It is not the beautiful landscape described by environmental activists and their Congressional backers.

According to Herrera, ANWR opponents show photographs of the Brooks Mountains located about 45 miles to the south of the area identified for oil drilling in an apparent attempt to misrepresent the true geographic nature of the area.

The delegation freely questioned villagers in Kaktovik and Barrow, a village of about 4,000 people located nearly 300 miles to the west of Area 10-02, and the county headquarters of the North Slope Borough, the local government entity encompassing Alaska's north slope. "We did not meet a single villager or local official opposed to drilling in the area," reported Stark.

The Kaktovik villagers view ANWR drilling as critical to the continuation of their lifestyle. They are shareholders of 92,000 acres in ANWR, including the subterranean mineral rights. Drilling will bring in much-needed revenue to their ancestral area that is plagued by astronomical prices due to the village's remoteness. A homebuilder by profession, Stark was informed it costs more than $300,000 to build a 1,000 square foot home due to high material and labor costs. Villagers are anxious to build a new school with ANWR royalties.

The traveling contingent hired a professional video photographer to record their trip and interviews. They intend to make the video available in the days ahead. At a July 17 press conference in Anchorage to report their findings, the seven congressional candidates were joined by Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and Lieutenant Governor Sean Parnell.

The worldwide demand for energy has squeezed oil supplies and has led to skyrocketing fuel costs. As measured by the public outcry, political opposition to domestic oil production has become increasingly untenable. The absurdity of efforts to prevent drilling in the U.S. is highlighted by a House bill passed in May that would have the Justice Department sue OPEC nations for not producing more oil to meet U.S. needs. ANWR opponents believe other countries have an obligation to do exactly what they oppose the U.S. could be doing at home. The political left's long discredited cry of "No blood for oil!" could be replaced with "Let's sue for oil!" Video recordings and first-hand observations offered by Williams and the others will likely increase public pressure on Congressional Democrats who oppose Area 10-02 oil excavation.

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About the Author
Mark Hyman hosts "Behind the Headlines," a commentary program for Sinclair Broadcast Group. You can follow him on Twitter at @markhyman.