The question of whether to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) has been an ongoing political controversy in the United States since 1977. The issue has been used by both Democrats and Republicans as a political device, especially through contentious election cycles, and has been the subject of much debate in the National media.
ANWR comprises 19,000,000 acres (77,000 km2) of the north Alaskan coast. The land is situated between the Beaufort Sea to the north, Brooks Range to the south, and Prudhoe Bay to the west. It is the largest protected wilderness in the United States and was created by Congress under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. Section 1002 of that act deferred a decision on the management of oil and gas exploration and development of 1,500,000 acres (6,100 km2) in the coastal plain, known as the "1002 area." The controversy surrounds drilling for oil in this subsection of ANWR.
Much of the debate over whether to drill in the 1002 area of ANWR rests on the amount of economically recoverable oil, as it relates to world oil markets, weighed against the potential harm oil exploration might have upon the natural wildlife, in particular the calving ground of the Porcupine caribou.
Before Alaska was granted statehood on January 3, 1959, virtually all 375,000,000 acres (1,520,000 km2) of the Territory of Alaska was federal land and wilderness. The act granting statehood gave Alaska the right to select 103,000,000 acres (420,000 km2) for use as an economic and tax base. In 1966, Alaska Natives protested a Federal oil and gas lease sale of lands on the North Slope which were claimed by Natives. Late that year Secretary Udall ordered the lease sale suspended, and shortly thereafter announced a 'freeze' on the disposition of all Federal land in Alaska, pending Congressional settlement of Native land claims. These claims were settled in 1971 by the Alaska Native claims settlement act, which granted them 44,000,000 acres (180,000 km2). The act also froze development on federal lands pending a final selection of parks, monuments, and refuges. The law was set to expire in 1978.
Toward the end of 1976, with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System virtually complete, major conservation groups shifted their attention to how best to protect the hundreds of millions of acres of Alaskan wilderness unaffected by the pipeline. On May 16, 1979, the United States House of Representatives approved a conservationist-backed bill that would have protected more than 125,000,000 acres (510,000 km2) of Federal lands in Alaska, including the calving ground of the nation's largest caribou herd. Backed by President Jimmy Carter, and sponsored by Morris K. Udall and John B. Anderson, the bill would have prohibited all commercial activity in 67,000,000 acres (270,000 km2) designated as wilderness areas. The US senate had opposed similar legislation in the past and filibusters were threatened.On December 2, 1980, Carter signed into law the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which created more than 104,000,000 acres (420,000 km2) of national parks, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas from Federal holdings in that state. The bill allowed drilling in ANWR, but not without prior approval from Congress. Both sides of the controversy announced they would attempt to change it in the next session of Congress.
Section 1002 of the act stated that a comprehensive inventory of fish and wildlife resources would be conducted on 1,500,000 acres (6,100 km2) of the Arctic Refuge coastal plain (1002 Area). Potential petroleum reserves in the 1002 Area were to be evaluated from surface geological studies and seismic exploration surveys. No exploratory drilling was allowed. Results of these studies and recommendations for future management of the Arctic Refuge coastal plain were to be prepared in a report to Congress.
In November 1986, a draft report by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that all of the coastal plain within the Artic National Wildlife Refuge be opened for oil and gas development. It also proposed to trade the mineral rights of 166,000 acres (670 km2) in the refuge for surface rights to 896,000 acres (3,630 km2) owned by corporations of six Alaska native groups, including Aleuts, Eskimos and Tlingits. The report argued that the oil and gas potentials of the coastal plain were needed for the country's economy and national security. Conservationists argued that oil development would unnecessarily threaten the existence of the Porcupine caribou by cutting off the herd from calving areas. They also expressed concerns that oil operations would erode the fragile ecological systems that support wildlife on the tundra of the Arctic plain. The proposal faced stiff opposition in the House of Representatives. Morris Udall, chairman of the House Interior Committee, said he would reintroduce legislation to turn the entire coastal plain into a wilderness area, effectively giving the refuge permanent protection from development.
Typical view of the ANWR 1002 area coastal plain
On July 17, 1987 the United States and the Canadian government signed the "Agreement on the Conservation of the Porcupine Caribou Herd" a treaty which was designed to protect the species from damage to its habitat and migration routes. Canada has special interest in the region because its Ivvavik National Park and Vuntut National Park borders the refuge. The treaty required an impact assessment and required that where activity in one country is "likely to cause significant long-term adverse impact on the Porcupine Caribou Herd or its habitat, the other Party will be notified and given an opportunity to consult prior to final decision."
In March 1989 a bill permitting drilling in the reserve was "sailing through the Senate and had been expected to come up for a vote" when the Exxon Valdez oil spill delayed and ultimately derailed the process.
In 1996 the Republican-majority House and Senate voted to allow drilling in ANWR, but this legislation was vetoed by President Bill Clinton. Toward the end of his presidential term environmentalists pressed Clinton to declare the Arctic Refuge a U.S. National Monument. Doing so would have permanently closed the area to oil exploration. While Clinton did create several refuge monuments, the Arctic Refuge was not among them.
Photograph of oil-stained sandstone near crest of Marsh Creek anticline, 1002 area
A 1998 report by the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that there was between 5.7 billion barrels (910,000,000 m3) and 16.0 billion barrels (2.54×109 m3) of technically recoverable oil in the designated 1002 area, and that most of the oil would be found west of the Marsh Creek anticline. When Non-Federal and Native areas are excluded, the estimated amounts of technically recoverable oil are reduced to 4.3 billion barrels (680,000,000 m3) and 11.8 billion barrels (1.88×109 m3). These figures differed from an earlier 1987 USGS report which estimated less quantities of oil and that it would be found in the southern and eastern parts of the 1002 area. However the 1998 report warned that the "estimates cannot be compared directly because different methods were used in preparing those parts of the 1987 Report to Congress."
In the 2000s, votes about the status of the refuge occurred repeatedly in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. President George W. Bush pushed to perform exploratory drilling for crude oil and natural gas in and around the refuge. The House of Representatives voted in mid-2000 to allow drilling. In April 2002 the Senate rejected it.
Arctic Refuge drilling was again approved by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives as part of the Energy Bill on April 21, 2005, but the Arctic Refuge provision was later removed by the House-Senate conference committee. The Republican-controlled Senate passed Arctic Refuge drilling on March 16, 2005 as part of the federal budget resolution for fiscal year 2006. That Arctic Refuge provision was removed during the reconciliation process, due to Democrats in the House of Representatives who signed a letter stating they would oppose any version of the budget that had Arctic Refuge drilling in it.
On December 15, 2005 Senator Ted Stevens, a Republican from Alaska, attached an Arctic Refuge drilling amendment to the annual defense appropriations bill. A group of Democratic Senators led a successful filibuster of the bill on December 21, and the language was subsequently removed.
On June 18, 2008 President George W. Bush pressed Congress to reverse the ban on offshore drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in addition to approving the extraction of oil from shale on federal lands. Despite his previous stance on the issue, President Bush cited the growing energy crisis as a major factor for reversing the presidential executive order issued by President George H. W. Bush in 1990, which banned coastal oil exploration and oil and gas leasing on most of the outer continental shelf. In conjunction with the presidential order, the Congressional moratorium banning drilling was first enacted in 1982 and has been renewed annually.