The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would satisfy only six months' worth of the nation's oil needs while oil drilling would "destroy" a wilderness that is calving ground to the 150,000 animals of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, former President Carter said yesterday.
A Georgian with Alaska on his mind, the former president used a telephone interview to vigorously dispute arguments by Vice President Dick Cheney and other drilling advocates that oil exploration would have minimal effects and leave only a "tiny footprint" on the coastal plain of the 19 million-acre refuge.
"(Cheney) may think it's a tiny footprint but the animals up there are not likely to react that way," Carter said. "Would we want to make a minimum impact with an oil well in Yellowstone National Park? Would an oil well in the bottom of the Grand Canyon leave a tiny imprint?"
The Bush administration has declared its intent to explore and bring on new sources of energy. It faces extensive opposition in the "lower 48" states, but in Alaska, the state's Republican congressional delegation as well as Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles have backed exploration, arguing that the coastal plain of the refuge is likely to contain as much or more oil than the Prudhoe Bay oil field directly to the west.
Prudhoe Bay / Alaska National Wildlife Refuge
Click on image for larger map
At the Western Governors Association meeting in Portland yesterday, Knowles disputed Carter and argued that drilling can safely proceed. "If people look beyond the bumper stickers, there is a way to develop (the refuge) and its natural resources and protect the environment at the same time," he said.
Despite the nation's new focus on energy needs, a nationwide poll completed this week for The Associated Press showed a majority of Americans oppose drilling in the Arctic Refuge. A total of 55 percent said no to drilling, 33 percent supported oil development and 13 percent were undecided. The poll was conducted by the Pennsylvania-based firm of ICR Inc. It polled 1,033 registered voters and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Knowles acknowledged public opposition to drilling, but he voiced hope that the current crunch has "softened" opposition.... The whole energy crisis has raised support for ANWR development, said the governor, referring to the refuge by its initials.
Knowles argued that Alaska's North Slope contains 100 trillion cubic yards of natural gas. He is developing plans for a pipeline that would ship gas supplies to other states.
Carter, during the last days of his administration, signed the Alaska Lands Act, which set aside nearly 104 million acres as national parks, national monuments, wild and scenic rivers, wilderness areas and wildlife refuges.
The act put off the contentious issue of drilling in coastal areas of the Arctic Refuge, however. It left the coastal plain without wilderness designation, but said that Congress would have to vote to approve future oil drilling.
"We left 95 percent of the areas with potential petroleum reserves in Alaska open to exploration and outside the boundaries of the protected areas," Carter said yesterday. "My only disappointment was that we did not firmly act to designate the coastal plain as wilderness."
"We don't need it," he added. "Its contribution would be tiny, six months of the country's petroleum needs. It would destroy the wilderness up there and one of the continent's last great predator-prey ecosystems."
Carter visited Alaska last summer to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Alaska Lands Act. The visit was snubbed by Knowles, who issued a news release that strongly criticized the former president's preservationist views.
Carter was sticking to his guns yesterday, arguing that the Arctic Refuge is a national treasure and that Alaska has not been shortchanged by the federal government.
"Alaska got almost as much land for the state government to manage as all other states combined," he said. "Alaska can use these lands as it wishes." But the Arctic Refuge, he added, belongs to the American people. "In the 'lower 48' would we want to let a state plow up a petrified forest? Or flood a great canyon? Of course not."
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