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  Cover: Ohioan logs 40,000 miles to save Alaskan refuge from drilling
Posted by: Admin on Wednesday, March 23, 2005 - 12:47 PM
News feature By Craig Hitchcock

When Ohioan Chad Kister first hiked in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in 1991, he backpacked over 700 miles, during which time he lived off the land eating roots, berries, greens and fish. He also came to know dozens of the native Gwich’in families that live there and depend on the porcupine caribou herd that grazes the coastal plain for their food, clothing, and cultural and spiritual survival. He also wrote a book, Arctic Quest, and has given hundreds of speeches to try to save their way of life.

“They are some of the most gentle, understanding people with as decent a purpose as any I’ve encountered. Their culture goes back 30,000 years and they have a very deep sense of belonging to the land and wanting to protect it,” said Kister, who first visited the refuge while working on a journalism degree at Ohio University at Athens.
Kister said the Gwich’in consider the coastal plains of the refuge as sacred because that is where the caribou come each year to graze and mate.
“They consider the plain so sacred they won’t even walk on it,” he said of the tundra area that remains frozen nine months a year.
But while the Gwich’in may not walk the plain, hundreds of trucks carrying parts for oil rigs and other equipment needed to search for oil reserves believed to be under the coastal plain may soon appear. That’s because a closely divided U.S. Senate voted on March 17 to approve oil drilling in the refuge for the first time. By a 51-49 vote, the Senate put the refuge drilling provision in next year’s budget, depriving opponents of a chance to use a filibuster, which requires 60 votes to overcome.
“This project will keep our economy growing by creating jobs and ensuring that business can expand,” President George W. Bush said in a statement. “And it will make America less dependent on foreign sources of energy, eventually by up to a million barrels of oil a day.”
Supporters of the plan say that, with modern technology, the job of drilling for oil can be done without harming ANWR’s unique wildlife.
“I think we ought to allow for exploration in environmentally responsible ways in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” Bush told the Detroit Economic Club in February. “For the sake of the economy and for the sake of national security, Congress needs to pass an energy plan and get it on my desk as soon as possible so we can become less reliant on foreign sources of energy.”
The U.S. Geologic Survey estimated in 1998 that, based on seismic studies, the coastal plain could have 5.6 billion to 16 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil, with the most likely amount being 10.4 billion barrels, with only 3.2 billion deemed “economically recoverable.” The Interior Department says it would begin selling oil leases by 2007 if Congress gives the go-ahead. (The U.S. consumes over 7 billion barrels of oil a year.)
Opponents strenuously disagree with Bush, contending that exploration of the refuge would destroy an irreplaceable ecosystem that is the densest denning area of polar bears in the world and home to one of the last refuges for Muskoxen, grizzly bears, arctic wolves, and arctic foxes in addition to the 120,000-head porcupine caribou herd.
“This is not just some place way up north,” Kister said. “It affects everyone in every state of the U.S. and six continents around the world. More than 160 species of birds from six continents and all 50 states breed on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. These are birds that end up in people’s backyards.”
Kister’s concern for the Alaskan wilderness grew after his first trip to the refuge in 1991. A graduate of the Scripps School of Journalism at OU, Kister funded the trip with money he had saved for college for eight years. It turned out he didn’t need the money because he received a full-ride scholarship to OU after he was named the nation’s top high school journalist.
Growing up in Arlington near Columbus, Kister said his grandmother first sparked his interest in the environment by subscribing to a Wildlife Federation magazine. He also spent time camping and had witnessed first-hand the damage to land caused by mining, logging and oil development.
“I backpacked through the oil field of Prudhoe Bay and into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” Kister said of his first trip in 1991. “Prudhoe Bay is a massive industrial nightmare with massive development and toxic waste spread over more than a thousand square miles for scores of miles in all directions. They have dredged enough gravel to fill 90,000 football fields to a height of three feet with all of this development. The oil companies already have 95 percent of the North Slope, and now they are trying to destroy the last bit of remaining wilderness.”
Kister and others concerned about the refuge, including Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine, Sen. John McCain, Sen. John Kerry and Sen. Joe Lieberman, suggest that drilling proponents are using current high oil prices as an excuse to open the refuge to drilling.
“Increasing the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards to 39 miles per gallon would save more than a hundred times more oil than could ever come from the Arctic Refuge, while also greatly helping reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” Kister said. “And those savings would begin immediately, while drilling the Arctic Refuge would take at least a decade, and that is not including all the court challenges to the drilling if it were passed.”
Kister noted that automakers such as Ford, Toyota and Honda already offer hybrid-electric vehicles that can get over 30 miles to the gallon, and he noted that Ford now sells an SUV hybrid-electric vehicle that gets 39 miles per gallon.
“Creating these kind of vehicles that can meet CAFÉ standards can now be done without impacting people’s choices of vehicle,” he said, adding that mid-size cars might soon easily reach 50-70 miles per gallon.
While improving mileage may be important, saving the pristine national wildlife refuge environment remains paramount for environmentalists, who have been fighting to prevent drilling since 1980, when President Jimmy Carter set aside the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain within the 19-million-acre refuge so it could be studied to determine whether it had oil or gas deposits. The coastal plain forms the heart of the last intact Arctic ecosystem. From a range the size of California, caribou migrate across the Brook Mountain Range to mass together on the coastal plain, where they give birth to the next generation of caribou.
These caribou in turn feed 17 Gwich’in villages. The Gwich’in are caribou people who have lived for 30,000 years off the Porcupine Caribou Herd that calves on the plain – right where oil companies want to drill for oil.
“These are among the last native peoples on Earth whose culture we have not yet destroyed,” said Kister, who returned to ANWR in 1993, where he interviewed Gwich’in families and climbed Misty Mountain. “Can’t we leave one place, and one culture, be?”
President Bush and other proponents contend that modern technology and new drilling techniques would limit the potential environmental exposure to drilling operations to a mere 2,000-acre footprint. The pro-drilling, a website backed by the petroleum industry, contends that “Advanced technology has greatly reduced the ‘footprint’ of the arctic oil development. If Prudhoe Bay were built today, the footprint would be 1,526 acres – 64 percent smaller.”
What proponents count as a footprint includes the drilling apparatus. It does not consider the thousands of miles of roads and pipelines and support structures that support oil exploration and production, Kister noted.
Still, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski contended in last week’s Senate debate that damage from roads would be minimized.
“When we talk about the roadless areas we have available for exploration, we mean it,” said Murkowski, the daughter of Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski, a longtime proponent of drilling. “We do mean that we are going to put down an ice road that will disappear when the summer comes,” she said.
But the reality of “roadless areas” may be quite different. In response to a New York Times inquiry, the Interior Department wrote that the term “roadless” does not mean an absence of roads. Rather, it indicates an attempt to minimize the construction of permanent roads.
Ice roads can pose ecological dangers because they require millions of gallons of water to build. That water would come from lakes in the refuge that are now home to wildlife and fish. The gradual warming of the arctic climate in recent years has also affected how long ice roads can be used to carry equipment such as the 64,000-pound exploratory rigs for seismic imaging, The Times reported.
Proponents also say that once drilling begins, that new drilling technology that allows drills to probe sideways will limit the number of exploratory wells required, thus limiting the impact of the wells.
But Jim Waltman, an expert on ANWR at the Wilderness Society, told The Times that state data indicated “that claims of technological improvement that allow for miles of diagonal drilling may be exaggerated.” Waltman said the data showed that the average horizontal distance of wells in the Prudhoe Bay area has increased only to 1.04 miles from nine-tenths of a mile in the last 30 years.
How such exploration would affect wildlife in the coastal plain remains unknown, but what is certain is how oil exploration and drilling affected the environment and wildlife in the Prudhoe Bay area. A recent summary prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey for Congress extensively detailed the “cumulative environmental effects” since drilling began on the North Slope in the 1960s. Among its findings:
Damage to Tundra from Off-Road Travel — Networks of seismic exploration trails cover extensive areas. The currently favored 3-D surveys require a higher spatial density of trails than earlier methods… Seismic exploration has adversely affected vegetation and caused erosion, especially along stream banks… The technology used for obtaining seismic data continues to improve, but there is still potential damage to the tundra because of the large camps, the number of vehicles used, and the higher spatial density of 3-D trails.
Effects on Animal Populations — Bowhead whales have been displaced in their fall migration by the noise of seismic exploration… Some denning polar bears have been disturbed. The ready availability of new sources of food from people in the oil fields has resulted in an increase in predator densities. Brown bears, arctic foxes, ravens, and glaucous gulls prey on eggs, nestlings and fledglings of many bird species, and the reproductive success of some of these species in the developed parts of the oil fields has been reduced. As a result of conflicts with industrial activity during the calving and an interaction of disturbance with the stress of summer insect harassment, reproductive success of Central Arctic Herd female caribou in contact with oil development from 1988 through 2001 was lower than for undisturbed females, contributing to an overall reduction in herd productivity.
Zones of Influence — The effects of industrial activities are not limited to the footprint of a structure or its immediate vicinity… They range from the effects of gravel roads and pads on animals, which can extend for several miles from the footprint to the influence of industrial structures on wilderness values, which can extend much further.
The report concludes, “Continued expansion is certain to exacerbate some existing effects and to generate new ones — possibly calling for regulatory revisions. Whether the benefits derived from oil and gas activities justify acceptance of the inevitable accumulated undesirable effects that have accompanied and will accompany them is an issue for society as a whole to debate and judge.”
Proponents would like to consider the debate done, but following their win in the Senate, the action now moves to the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee.
“The battle is far from over,” said Lexi Keogh of the Alaska Wilderness League, suggesting environmentalists will push to keep the ANWR provision out of the final budget document. But that may be difficult as five of the ten Energy Committee members are Republicans who voted to keep drilling in the budget, as did two Democratic members of the committee.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, suggested that the question of drilling should be debated as a separate legislation or as part of a broad energy bill. But, she added, in tying it to the budget, proponents may have “hitched themselves” to some tough issues, such as the deficit, the Medicare/Medicaid shortfall, and other issues that could yet doom the budget bill – and thus drilling.
With all the political wrangling, Kister remains ready to hit the road again, giving slide presentations to civic groups regarding the Arctic Refuge. Since publishing his book, he has logged more than 40,000 miles talking to folks about why the refuge must be preserved (his website is
One of the senators whom he would most like to influence is Ohio Sen. George Voinovich, who voted to allow drilling even as fellow Republican Sen. Mike DeWine voted to preserve the refuge.
“I tell people the best way to help is to call and write their congressmen,” Kister said. “The refuge has never been more threatened than it is now. All would be lost if drilling is passed in the budget bill now before Congress. If drilling is approved, this last refuge will be gone forever.”
Meanwhile, proponents such as Sen. Pete Domenici, R-NM, Chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, disagree.
“Some people say we ought to conserve more,” he said. “They say we ought to conserve instead of produce this oil. But we need to do everything. We have to conserve and produce where we can.”
Whether that production should occur on one of America’s most treasured and pristine wildlife refuges might soon be decided. As the U.S. Geological Survey suggested, that decision must balance the inevitable damage to a pristine wilderness environment with the need for oil. In this case, it’s by no means certain that nature will win over man.

Reach DCP writer Craig Hitchcock at


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