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Oil Debate in Alaska Is All in a Name

By renaming the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, oil interests hope to open the area to drilling

WHAT'S in a name? In the case of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a semantic debate over its moniker has broad implications for the enduring conflict between environmental preservation and oil development.

To environmentalists, the 1.5 million acre coastal plain - a narrow strip of land bordered by the Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean - is the coastline's last undeveloped wildlife haven and the irreplaceable calving ground for the porcupine caribou herd.

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To the oil industry, the coastal plain, which is near the oil-rich Prudhoe Bay, is the nation's last, best hope for a new "elephant," or giant oil field. The natural oil that seeps out of rocks in the plain is evidence of riches that lie below.

Now Alaska's two pro-oil, Republican senators and other proponents of ANWR drilling argue that the coastal plain isn't really part of the 19.3 million acre wildlife refuge after all. And in an apparent effort to make the idea of drilling beneath the plain more palatable to the public, they have renamed it the "Arctic oil reserve."

"It never was ANWR," said Sen. Frank Murkowski, chairman of the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee, in a recent speech to an Alaska business group. It is "really the Arctic oil reserve, to be set aside by Congress," he said.

The name is changing, said Sen. Ted Stevens recently, "because the [drilling] opponents, a very extreme group, try to leave the impression that we're trying to lease the whole Arctic wildlife refuge."

"We are not trying to lease the wilderness. It never was wilderness. It has always been available for oil and gas leasing," Senator Stevens says.

Until now, Congress - which has the authority to allow drilling on the ANWR coastal plan - has bowed to environmentalists' concerns and blocked the move.

But this spring, Congress has moved closer than ever to authorizing ANWR oil development by treating the issue as a budget matter rather than an environmental issue. Separate budget bills passed last month by the House and the Senate include federal revenues of between $1.25 billion and $2.3 billion from ANWR oil and gas leasing in the coming years.

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If President Clinton vetos Congress's budget, he risks shutting down the entire government, Stevens says.

Sarah James of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, a group of Athabascan Indians in Alaska and Canada who oppose oil development in the refuge, says the ANWR provisions were slipped into the budget package without the public's knowledge.

"It's just made it more difficult for us to take it out of the budget," Ms. James says. "But the battle is not over yet."

Despite the senators' assertions, the coastal plain has been part of the wildlife refuge since the Alaska National Intererst Lands Conservation Act was passed in 1980, says Deborah Williams, special Alaska assistant for Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. The Clinton administration opposes ANWR oil development.

But ANWR oil drilling got a boost June 13 when the Alaska Federation of Natives - the largest organization of Alaska Eskimos, Indians, and Aleuts - broke its longtime official neutrality on the issue and endorsed exploration in the refuge. The issue has divided Alaska Natives, pitting Inupiat Eskimos, who have reaped significant economic benefit from oil development, against Athabascan Indians from Interior Alaska, who still hunt the caribou and want to maintain a more traditional lifestyle.

The endorsement came after lengthy debate over Alaska's economic future and was "one of the most difficult decisions we have ever had to make," says AFN leader Julie Kitka. And it may carry more weight than the senators' semantics strategy, observers say.

Even Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles (D), who, like most Alaska politicians, supports ANWR oil development and has authorized a $650,000 state lobbying campaign on the issue, rejects the new name.

"There is oil beneath ANWR, but [the area] has other values as well. We do want to extract the oil but we want to do it in an environmentally sound manner," says Claire Richardson, spokeswoman for Mr. Knowles.

"The governor feels comfortable continuing to call ANWR what it has been named all along - the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," Richardson says.

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