National Geographic : 2006 May
perhaps the most famous Alaska well since the discovery of oil at Prudhoe, is just another dry hole in the tundra. One test well, of course, doesn't characterize an entire field-11 dry holes were drilled before they found Prudhoe-but it might explain why oil companies wanted to keep the bad news out of the highly charged political debate. When asked for comment, a Chevron spokesman would only say, "We don't make announcements about what we've found. This is a highly com petitive business, and we've chosen to keep the information on that well proprietary." Drilling proponents, like Alaska Senator Ted Stevens and Governor Frank Murkowski, have long painted the coastal plain as a bleak, frozen wasteland good for little but reducing-how ever slightly-our dependence on foreign oil. It's an argument that makes noted wildlife biologist George Schaller, who helped conduct one of the early wildlife surveys in the refuge, shake his head. "It is the ultimate in patriotism to leave future generations what the past reveres," he said. "Drilling in ANWR is just ecological vandalism. You have the landscape of 10,000 years compared with Prudhoe Bay, which has the landscape of New Jersey. What kind of society do we have that would destroy that for future generations for a few more gallons of gas?" Some industry observers speculate that the oil companies aren't as interested in drilling ANWR as they are in placing pipelines and oth er infrastructure there to tap the massive fields thought to lie beneath the Beaufort Sea. So far, the prohibitive cost and high risks of develop ing such fields amid the Arctic ice have kept the oil companies close to shore. But with oil prices climbing and Arctic ice melting, it may soon be profitable to put those fields in play. Offshore drilling has long been the Inupiat's greatest fear. Even oil company officials admit 76 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * MAY 2006 The Inupiat of the North Slope stand to become the newest oil barons of the 21st century. But in the process they may lose what makes them Inupiat. Many are none too happy about it. that there is no known technology for cleaning up an oil spill in the broken ice conditions that occur in spring and fall-coincidentally when some 10,000 bowhead whales are migrating just offshore. The annual spring and fall bowhead hunts and communal sharing of the whale meat have become the cultural backbone of the Inu piat in the face of the onslaught of westerniza tion. And a spill in an area where the base of the food chain-phytoplankton and marine algae depends on sunlight filtering through the ice could devastate the Arctic ecosystem for decades. Bush pilot Pat Valkenburg, a retired biol ogist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, banked his little beige Super Cub low and slow over a rough square of tundra a few hundred feet below. "There it is," he said, pointing to a steel pipe poking up from the tun dra. "The only test well ever drilled in ANWR. Doesn't look like much does it?" I had to agree. We'd spent the past three hours flying over some of the most spectacular scenery on Earth: The Beaufort Sea, looking like an endless white sheet cake, trimmed in cobalt blue; the buff brown tundra of coastal plain, dotted with caribou; the rolling foothills rising into the mighty Brooks Range, sparkling in the sky like the Emerald City of Oz. This, though mind-blowingly beautiful, was what I expected. But it was that pesky little pipe that seemed to symbolize the ultimate choice of a nation: Whether to leave one corner of the wildest state the way it has been for millennia, or to leave no patch of tundra unturned to meet our insatiable desire for oil. D t Wild North Learn about the challenges the North Slope faces in a multimedia show narrated by photographer Joel Sartore. Then join the oil vs. wilderness debate on our forum at ngm.com/0605.