Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Essay

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The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is located along the Arctic Ocean in Alaska, east of the main North Slope oil fields, and bordering on the U.S.-Canadian (Alaska-Yukon Territory) border. It encompasses over 19 million acres of land. It is home to a great deal of wildlife, and may also contain oil. The federal government created the refuge in 1960, after a campaign by nationally known conservationists and scientists, as the Arctic National Wildlife Range. The range was somewhat smaller than the current refuge; in 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) expanded the “range” and made it a “refuge.” According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages ANWR, the refuge contains 45 species of land and marine mammals, perhaps the most famous (and controversial) of which is the vast porcupine caribou herd, the largest of several herds that inhabit the region. The three wild rivers in the refuge also contain 36 species of fish, and at least 180 species of birds.

In enlarging ANWR, the ANILCA created three basic parts of the refuge. Two of them, the refuge and the wilderness area, encompass 17.5 million acres. The remaining 1.5 million acres is the coastal plain, where oil is likely to be available, but which is also the natural habitat of caribou and other species. The coastal plain, known as the “1002 area” after that section of the ANILCA that mandated a study of the wildlife and petroleum resources in the refuge, is the focus of debate over oil exploration in the refuge. Proponents argue that there are between 600,000 and 9.2 million bbl (billions of barrels) of economically recoverable oil in the coastal plain. Opponents argue that production would not exceed 0.8 percent of world production annually, and, would be unlikely to reduce the world price of oil. Natural gas may also be abundant, and plans are underway to build a gas pipeline from the North Slope through Alaska and Canada to southern markets.

ANILCA section 1003 prohibits oil exploration and production in the 1002 area. Congress has the power, however, to repeal section 1003, and has attempted to do so. In 1989 it seemed likely that such an attempt would succeed, but the effort was stopped in its tracks by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which raised questions about the oil industry’s ability to responsibly produce and ship oil. In late 2005, congress again attempted to open ANWR, but it failed in the face of a threatened senate filibuster. In 2006 the House of Representatives voted to open up the area in the wake of rapidly escalating oil prices; once again, the senate failed to pass similar legislation. British Petroleum’s partial shutdown of its nearby Prudhoe Bay field due to a pipeline leak illustrated the need for more oil production, and the continued environmental problems caused by oil.


  1. “The Battle in the Arctic,” Economist (July 8, 2000);
  2. Jim Doherty, “The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: The Best of the Last Wild Places,” Smithsonian (v.26/12, 1996);
  3. Clifford Krauss and Jeremy W. Peters, “Biggest Oil Field in S. Is Forced to Stop Pumping,” New York Times (August 8, 2006);
  4. Todd Wilkinson, “Oil Industry’s Biggest Obstacle to Drilling: Public Resistance,” Christian Science Monitor (October 9, 1997).

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