The troubles faced by the fish and birds in Alaska's Prince William Sound because of the March 24 oil spill have intensified a debate on the future of about 180,000 caribou that wander the tundra about 800 miles to the north.
That is where the oil industry wants to extend its search for oil--and where environmentalists have planted a stake in the ground. Both sides say that the issue has been catapulted to the top of the environmental agenda in Congress by the recent oil disaster.
A classic policy battle even before the accident off the port of Valdez, the argument is portrayed by the two sides in almost cosmic terms: the survival of North America's last complete ecosystem versus the nation's last best hope for another world-class oil field to protect the national security.
At issue is the coastal plain of Alaska National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska, a strip of land 100 miles wide by 18 to 40 miles deep that lies between the Beaufort Sea and the northernmost foothills of Alaska's Brooks Range. The coastal plain takes up 1.5 million acres of the 19-million-acre refuge.
Congress must approve any commercial activity in the refuge and one of three bills on the issue--opening the plain up for development--was approved 12 to 7 last month by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. It is sponsored by Sens. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), chairman of the committee, and the ranking minority member of the panel, Sen. James A. McClure (R-Ida.).
The oil industry's supporters, including President Bush, insisted last week that it is illogical to link the tanker spill with the safety of oil drilling. Most of the nation's crude oil arrives by tanker and that will not change regardless of what development takes place in Alaska.
If oil were found on the coastal plain, it probably would enter production in 10 years. With Prudhoe Bay production already entering its natural decline, the new oil would supplant it, prolonging rather than increasing the tanker traffic from Valdez.
"They're not related," declared Walter J. Hickel, the former Interior secretary and ex-governor of Alaska who has long advocated the development of the state's rich resources. "The wildlife refuge is a drilling problem and Valdez is a tanker problem. But from a perception standpoint, I can well understand that it's going to be a problem."
Opponents see the oil spill as a powerful argument to sway undecided lawmakers because it highlights the risks of the oil system versus the advantages of energy conservation or the development of cleaner forms of energy.
Critics also said that the apparent snafus that both caused and followed the spill have seriously weakened the credibility of the oil industry, which has boasted until now of having operated in the Arctic for 20 years and produced 6 billion barrels of crude oil without environmental disaster.
"For days, everybody in the nation has been bombarded with these images from Valdez," said John Katz, the head of the state of Alaska's Washington office. "The oil spill is going to have a profound influence on decision-making in Washington."
At a minimum, the spill could generate support for additional delays or for linkage of any congressional action opening up the refuge to such conservationist goals as tougher fuel economy standards for cars.
"This dramatic spill will finally get the attention of a lot of people who haven't looked at it very hard until now," said former Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.), an adviser to the Wilderness Society in Washington.
"We may very well have the votes, as a result of this, to at least refer it to the National Academy of Science for study."
Said an aide to Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), whose Interior subcommittee has jurisdiction over all three pending House bills on the refuge: "Nobody's going to say: 'I changed my mind because of the spill.' But this raises a lot of questions about development. This is a major political event in addition to an ecological event."
The refuge, established by Congress in two steps in 1960 and 1980, adjoins Canada's Yukon Territory and embraces several peaks in the Brooks Range, a virtually sacred region to such conservationists as the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.
Oilmen have restricted their exploration target to the coastal plain, a flat to gently rolling, treeless piece of landscape--"a flat, crummy place," as an Atlantic Richfield executive unwisely described it a few years ago--said to overlie 26 major geologic structures.
The legislation that completed creation of the wildlife refuge in 1980 also ordered a separate study of the biology and the oil potential of the coastal plain. A consortium of oil companies produced an optimistic report that led the Ronald Reagan Administration to recommend in April, 1987, that the plain be opened to oil exploration and development.