KAKTOVIK, Alaska (AP) -- Interior Secretary Gale Norton received a warm welcome Saturday from residents living in the only village within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- a visit that proponents hope will strengthen efforts to drill for oil in the refuge.
The delegation from Washington, which consisted of two Democratic senators and a top White House counselor, was led by Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a strong proponent of drilling in the refuge's coastal plain. The senators joining him were Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the top committee Democrat who has stated he is opposed to drilling in the protected refuge in Alaska's northeast corner, and Minnesota senator Mark Dayton.
Three Republican senators had planned to take the trip but canceled for personal reasons. They are Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, George Allen of Virginia and Wayne Allard of Colorado.
A top White House counselor, Mary Matalin, also took the trip, which included a tour of the aging Prudhoe Bay oil field that has historically provided 20- to 25-percent of the country's oil needs. However, production has dropped to about half of what it was in 1989, while at the same time the nation's import of oil has increased from 37 percent in 1973 to 56 percent now. Murkowski estimates that by 2005 imports will reach 60 percent.
Bingaman has said he's opposed to drilling in the refuge and is more interested in the natural gas reserves at Prudhoe Bay, estimated at a recoverable 35 trillion cubic feet. Natural gas extracted from the earth during oil drilling now is reinjected and could be recovered and brought to market of a pipeline to the Lower 48.
About three-quarters of the 260 residents of Kaktovik, a village on a barrier island in the refuge, support drilling in ANWR because they hope the money from oil will improve village life, said Mayor Lon Sonsalla. Residents would like a nurse or doctor to live in the village. Instead of barging diesel fuel up from Seattle, they'd like natural gas, he said.
''People are comfortable that it (drilling) could be done and done right,'' Sonsalla said.
Norton thanked about 50 villagers who gathered in the Kaktovic community center to welcome her.
''It is important that we involve you all and hear your opinions,'' said Norton, who supports opening up ANWR if Congress agrees to lift refuge protection and drilling could be done in an environmentally sound way.
She said any energy policy the Bush administration would agree to would take care of the environment, meet the energy needs of the country and ''also ensure the land you love so much is protected.''
That was the concern of the majority of about 200 protesters who gathered in Fairbanks, where the interior secretary was having dinner with members of the Washington delegation Friday night.
Dayton, a former Minnesota economic development and energy commissioner, had said he was opposed to opening up ANWR during his campaign last year. On Saturday, he told the villagers he wanted to learn more about the issue.
''I came here with an open mind,'' he said. ''I have filled that space with good information.''
Bingaman also said he was trying to learn as much as he could by visiting the isolated village.
The group also visited Alpine, a Phillips Alaska project touted for its environmentally-friendly ''small footprint'' from the use of horizontal drilling techniques. Production at Alpine began last November.
Bingaman said toward the end of the trip that he had a lot of information to digest but expected that he will still be opposed to drilling in the refuge. He said he was impressed with the technological advances that have been made to reduce risk to the environment. But he said his position remained pretty much the same as before.
''I objected because I was reluctant to go back on a decision to set the property aside (for protection),'' he said.
Senate Democrats remain opposed to drilling in the refuge and have vowed to block legislation that lifts the refuge's protection. But drilling is a key element in President Bush's energy strategy, although the president indicated Thursday that he may not be able to persuade Congress to open ANWR to oil and gas development.
Proponents say the refuge could hold as much as 16 billion barrels of recoverable oil, more than Prudhoe Bay.
At the heart of the issue for environmentalists is the 130,000 Porcupine caribou herd that migrates from western Canada to calving grounds on the refuge's coastal plain.
''They will visit the Prudhoe Bay oil fields with no exposure to findings on the impacts of drilling on the environment that dozens of independent scientists and other academic experts could and should provide,'' said Adam Kolton, Arctic campaign director of the Alaska Wilderness League.
The 7,000 to 10,000 Gwich'in Natives of northeastern Alaska and northwestern Canada are opposed to oil development because they say it will disrupt caribou calving in the refuge.
''The caribou are central to our culture and our way of life and it has always been this way,'' said Faith Gemmill, spokeswoman for the Gwich'in Steering Committee, representing 15 Gwich'in villages. ''It is not worth it for my people to lose thousands of years of our culture.''
Gemmill accused Murkowski of arranging the tour for when the caribou are gone and the refuge is a vast nothingness covered in snow. If they really were interested in making a fair assessment, they'd come in June to see the caribou, Gemmill said.
Norton said she hoped to return to the refuge in the summer.
Rural Alaskans have seen little benefit from 30 years of oil development at Prudhoe Bay and that won't change if the refuge is developed, said Gideon James, a member of the Venetie Tribal Council. Tribal members own 1.8 million acres about 300 miles south of the refuge used by migrating caribou herds.
The welfare of the caribou is not negotiable, especially when nothing is to be gained by developing ANWR, James said.
''We are not getting the fair share of the oil development in this state and I blame the political people for that,'' he said. ''I'm fed up with the political people. They let the big oil companies rip them off.''
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