Largely uninhabited and undeveloped, the 1.5 million acres that stretch along Alaska’s north-eastern coast are an unlikely site for a pitched political battle. But for the past seven years the Arctic coastal plain near the border with Canada—part of the sprawling Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—has been a battleground for two opposing groups: environmentalists and giant American energy companies.
Last week the dispute heated up anew when the Reagan administration announced its support for oil development on the pristine northern lands.
The announcement came in Washington from U.S. Interior Secretary Donald Hodel. Although his department’s own biologists, the Canadian government and a wide range of environmental groups had advised against the recommendation, Hodel said that the benefits of increasing the domestic American oil supply outweighed the small possibility of environmental harm from oil and gas exploration. Said Hodel: “If you’re sensitive in the way you proceed, there doesn’t have to be any adverse impact.” Still, the Canadian government opposes the secretary’s plan and several American groups announced that they would urge Congress to reject it. Said Susan Alexander, Alaska regional director for The Wilderness Society: “Currently 1,100 miles of Alaska’s Arctic coastline are open to oil development. We’re now talking about a stretch of 125 miles we want to say ‘no’ to. Do we want to sacrifice that last pristine stretch for a couple of months’ or even a couple of years’ worth of oil?” The centre of Canadian and environmental concern is one of the largest herds of migratory caribou in North America. The 185,000 animals of the Porcupine caribou herd (jointly managed by the United States and Canada under a long-standing informal agreement) spend part of the year in the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. But each spring the herd journeys as far as 1,000 km over mountains and rivers into Alaska to calve on the land
now targeted for oil development. In a draft study released late last year, interior department biologists concluded that oil activity in the breeding grounds could reduce the size of the herd by as much as 40 per cent. But that finding was not included in last week’s final report. Hodel said that the original conclusion was an “error.”
Indeed, some American officials have claimed that caribou can actually benefit from oil development. Last month in New York Thomas Niles, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, said that other Alaskan oil developments showed the animals were attracted to
oil pipelines. Said Niles: “They like to get under the pipeline when it’s 40below because it’s warm.” And Hodel told reporters last December that Ottawa had trumped up its environmental concerns. Its real motive, he charged, was to block the project in order to boost future sales of Canadian oil and gas to the United States.
Despite Hodel’s recommendation, Canadian officials in Washington said that they will continue fighting the proposal. “The battle is far from over,” said James Wright, head of the environment section of the Canadian Embassy. ‘‘Everyone knows this isn’t going to pass Congress swiftly.” And in Whitehorse, Y.T., members of the Yukon government said that they would like to invite interested congressmen to the territory to protest directly, and may also send Yukon representatives to Washington. Norma Kassi, a mem-
ber of the Yukon’s New Democratic Party government, said she does not accept the American argument that the caribou can be protected. “Of course it’s going to jeopardize the caribou herd,” said Kassi, who represents the remote Arctic Circle village of Old Crow, whose 250 residents rely heavily on the Porcupine herd for food. “That’s their land—it’s their habitat.”
For concerned Canadians, the most encouraging sign is the growing American opposition to the proposed exploration. U.S. opponents—who include Morris Udall, Democratic chairman of the House of Representatives’ interior committee—aim to delay passage of legislation until the Reagan administration leaves office in January, 1989. And even oil industry officials conceded that the plan could well be delayed for some time. Said John Gore, vicepresident of government affairs for BP North America Inc.: “It’s much easier to block legislation than to try and get it through. In the immediate future we face a very difficult problem.”
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