The ANWR Debate: To Drill or Not to Drill

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Americans are finally going to get some good news at the gas pump.  Experts say the price of gas could fall by as much as 50 cents a gallon by June.

However, analysts predict the drop will only be temporary and that oil prices will head higher again in the future.

The situation has led to renewed debate over whether to tap the vast oil reserves in ANWAR, the Alaska Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Last 'Pristine' Frontier

One estimate says that there could be as much as 16 billion barrels of oil in ANWR -- that's the same as 30 years of imports from Saudi Arabia.

But the drilling would take place in what environmentalists call one of the last pristine wilderness areas on Earth, located in the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain on the north slope of Alaska, which is home to seabirds, caribou and polar bears.

However, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and others in favor of drilling say the public has been misled by environmentalists and the media as to what ANWR is really like.

Televsion footage often supplied to news agencies by environmentalists shows the beautiful Brooks Range. But that's not where the drilling would take place.

The actual location of the oil on the coastal plain, has been compared by one critic to "Mars." And if you turn your camera in the right direction, it does indeed look like Mars.

Dan Gainor, who heads the conservative Business and Media Institute, said, "The media loves this word 'pristine.' They say 'it's a pristine wilderness.' That means it's empty. I've seen pictures of Siberia that look more inviting. It's a wasteland."

"Palin's been quoted as saying there are no mountains up there, and that is one of the keys. If you look at the pictures you see these beautiful majestic mountains. But they're not in the place that they're talking about drilling," Gainor said.

A Slippery Environmental Slope?

The entire Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is about the size of South Carolina. And the proposed drilling area on the coastal plain is only supposed to be 2,000 acres, about the size of an airport.

But Kristen Miller, legislative director of the Alaska Wilderness League, doesn't buy it, and warns that once started, the oil operation will grow.

"These wells would spread over the entire 1.5 million acres. And with these wells comes a sprawling spider web of millions of miles of pipelines, of gravel roads, of power lines, of airstrips," she said. "I mean this is a true industrial complex and it is an industrial complex that would be going into an area that is completely untouched from development."

Miller says that any drilling operation would disrupt the important breeding habits of the porcupine caribou. Lucy Beach lives in ANWR, as part of the native Gwitchen population, and she opposes drilling.

"I think the United States has a moral obligation to protect the lifestyle of the people who have been in this area for 20,000 years," she said. "For us - we believe this is the sacred place where life begins. And it's where 40-50,000 caribou calves from the porcupine caribou herd go to calve and to nurse and that is what our culture is based on."

Drill Away!

Beach is in a minority on this issue. Polls show that an overwhelming majority of Alaskans favor drilling in ANWR. Still, Miller says that's not reason enough to allow it.

"The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is part of our nation's public land legacy. Saying that Alaskans should have the soul decision making power of whether we drill in the arctic refuge is akin to Californians saying we're going to cut down the redwoods and use them for fire wood," she explained.

"These are public lands," Miller said. "They belong to all Americans. And everybody has a voice in deciding whether they stay protected."

A new Gallup poll, taken as gasoline prices were rapidly heading to all-time highs, shows that most Americans favor drilling in ANWR as well as drilling for oil and gas in U.S. coastal area.

Predictions of $5 per gallon gas by Memorial Day may make what was once unthinkable, drilling in ANWR, closer to becoming a reality.

*Originally broadcast in September 2008.  

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