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Debate on drilling brought to Arctic refuge village

Posted: Sunday, April 06, 2003

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- Robert Thompson is against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge because of what happened at the Prudhoe Bay oil field.

''I don't want it because I've seen Prudhoe Bay and I've seen the structures, the black smoke coming from the area, the roads, the infrastructure,'' said Thompson, an Inupiat Eskimo wilderness guide in Kaktovik, the only village inside the refuge in northeast Alaska. ''I would like to leave the land like it is for future generations.''

Thompson was among seven people who testified Saturday before several members of the House Resources Committee who traveled to Kaktovik, a village of 306 people on Barter Island about 110 miles east of Prudhoe Bay and part of the 19.6 million-acre refuge.

The committee members heard testimony concerning two bills, one that would open the refuge's oil-rich coastal plain to drilling and another that would make it permanent wilderness.

About 120 people crowded into the community hall for the four-hour hearing. Repeatedly, lawmakers were told that the people of Kaktovik have been ignored in the long debate over drilling.

''You have made it clear that your voices must be heard on issues that directly affect the North Slope. I will take your message back to Washington so that your voice can be heard,'' said Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chairman of the House Resources Committee.

Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont., Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., Devin Nunes, R-Calif., and Madeleine Bordallo, a Democrat delegate from Guam, made the trip to Kaktovik. Also attending were U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and her father, Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski.

George Tagarook, fire chief and former Kaktovik mayor, holds the more popular opinion in Kaktovik that drilling would be a good thing. He reflected Thursday on what he would say at the hearing.

''I think we are pretty sure we could drill in an environmentally sound way,'' said Tagarook, an Inupiat Eskimo.

He said drilling in the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain for its estimated 5.7 billion to 16 billion barrels of oil extends far beyond bringing better services to the village, where residents still do not have flush toilets and home heating fuel is barged from Seattle.

''This is not a Kaktovik issue. It also will benefit the state of Alaska and the rest of the United States of America,'' Tagarook said.

Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat strongly opposed to drilling, wants the coastal plain designated as wilderness. He decided against attending the hearing Saturday because of action taken by the committee on the drilling bill prior to the meeting in Kaktovik.

''I asked the Republicans to hold a hearing on the Arctic wilderness before voting to drill. Instead, they voted to drill on Wednesday and scheduled the hearing on Saturday... It is like a doctor performing an operation on a patient today and scheduling the examination for tomorrow,'' Markey said.

The coastal plain is ''unique wilderness'' and deserves to be legally recognized as such, he said.

''Ninety-five percent of the North Slope is already open to drilling. The least we can do is to protect the Arctic refuge for current and future generations,'' said Markey, who has never visited the refuge.

Tagarook said it's ''totally absurd'' to think of the area as wilderness.

''If you look up wilderness in the dictionary it is a place where there are no people. We have lived up here for thousands and thousands of years and the people from lower Alaska and America want to build this into wilderness. That is really offensive,'' Tagarook said Thursday.

At the heart of the issue for environmentalists is the 130,000-animal Porcupine caribou herd that usually migrates from western Canada to calving grounds on the refuge's coastal plain.

Thompson said if drilling is allowed, it could harm the caribou and polar bears that den on the coastal plain.

''I have been out there and there are probably more types of wildlife in the refuge than probably anywhere else in the United States,'' he said.

Debbie Miller, a founding member of the Alaska Wilderness League, said she tried to impress upon the committee members that the refuge is world-class and should be protected. But she said it appeared their minds were already made up.

''They are only hearing one side, the pro-drilling people,'' she said after the hearing ended.

The hearing came about after Pombo scheduled a hearing on a bill by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, to open the coastal plain to drilling.

Markey challenged Pombo to also hold a hearing on his wilderness proposal, and Pombo agreed, setting the hearing in Kaktovik. Young also did not attend the hearing.

Kaktovik mayor Lon Sonsalla said one of the big problems in the decade-long fight over the coastal plain has been that the locals have been ignored.

''Something needs to be written into the legislation allowing the local people a say, whichever way it goes... so the land doesn't get destroyed, the animals don't get run out of here,'' he said. ''Nobody wants anybody coming and disrupting your backyard and not asking you about it.''

A vote in the Senate last month fell two votes short in what many considered the best chance yet of opening ANWR to drilling. The Bush administration said late last month it was not giving up the fight and would turn its attention to the House to salvage a key part of the president's energy plan.

Kim Duke, executive director of Arctic Power, a lobbying group that for 10 years has tried to open ANWR, said the wilderness bill is similar to others proposed over the years.

''I don't take it seriously at all,'' she said.



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