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Tiny footprint in a vast wilderness, or giant spider web threatening wildlife?

ANWR drilling debate focuses on size

Posted: Monday, April 08, 2002

WASHINGTON -- An industrial footprint covering 2,000 acres -- or a spiderweb of roads, rigs and pipelines over an area of Alaska hundreds of times that size?

In the sparring over whether to let oil companies onto a 25-mile-long strip of coastal plain in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the truth is in dispute between supporters' claims and opponents' counterclaims.

The Senate is to make a decision next week on the issue. In the runup to the vote, each side is accusing the other of distorting the potential environmental impact of opening the refuge to oil exploration.

Pro-drilling advocates maintain that only a sliver of the vast refuge, known as ANWAR (pronounced an-wahr) will be disturbed by drilling rigs, support buildings, airstrips and production facilities. Roads will be limited to those made of ice so they can melt in spring. Travel between well pads will be generally by air.

''Out of 19 million acres, no more than 2,000 acres will be utilized for development. That's about the size of the average regional airport,'' says Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

Environmentalists complain those characterizations are a distortion, or at the very least misleading. In the path of the development, they maintain, are calving areas for caribou, the home of musk-oxen, the winter dens of polar bears and the summer stopover for millions of migratory birds.

''They would like people to think it's a postage stamp footprint, but it would be a sprawl of pipelines, roads and platforms across the entire coastal plain. They're trying to put one over on people,'' says Peter Rafle of the Wilderness Society.

A House-passed bill and a measure to be introduced next week in the Senate would cap the direct surface area to be used at 2,000 acres. But those acres can be spread across the 1.5-million acre coastal plain, virtually all of it precious to wildlife, environmentalists say.

The debate over drilling in ANWR has never been about all 19 million acres of the refuge, an expanse that includes everything from coastal wetlands to large peaks and forests. It is about the narrow strip along the Beaufort Sea -- the 25-mile long coastal plain -- that contains the oil and in 1980 was specifically barred by Congress from being developed.

Government geologists estimate as much as 11 billion barrels of oil -- reserves almost as large as nearby Prudhoe Bay -- might rest beneath the coastal strip, but they don't know exactly where. Unlike Prudhoe, which is one massive field, the ANWR oil is believed to be in perhaps as many as 30 or more smaller fields.

No one is certain how the wells would be distributed. Most agree that a large part -- if not all -- of the coastal plain would be dotted with gravel-based drilling pads, connected by a network of pipelines raised off the ground by supports.

There could be 200 to 300 wells, estimates Roger Herrera, a lobbyist for Arctic Power, a group funded by the oil industry and the state of Alaska, to try to persuade lawmakers to open the refuge to development.

Herrera, a former oil industry geologist who spent 30 years working for BP, the British oil conglomerate, says the planned environmental restrictions and modern oil exploration and drilling technologies will allow production and still protect wildlife.

''The footprint is going to be minimized and the impact on wildlife is going to be minimized accordingly,'' he said in an interview, echoing the views of President Bush, who has made opening the Arctic refuge a centerpiece of his energy policy.

Herrera and Interior Secretary Norton dismiss claims by environmentalists that the 2,000- acre limit is misleading, and they accuse opponents of ANWR drilling of engaging in distortions of their own.

They complain environmentalists seek to stir emotions by distributing photographs that do not show the refuge as it is during the bleak winter months when oil exploration would occur. And, says Herrera, they ignore 30 years of study showing wildlife can coexist with oil fields.

If the refuge is opened to development, Norton says she will ''impose the toughest environmental standards ever applied to oil production.''

A bill already passed by the House requires the interior secretary to guarantee ''no significant adverse effect'' on wildlife and their habitat.

The Congressional Research Service analyzed the House bill and said many of the requirements on road building and other development ''will depend on the secretary's interpretation.''



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