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COLUMN ONE : Alaska Oil Refuels an Old Debate : Potentially vast new Arctic reserves set the stage for a classic confrontation between environmental preservation and America’s energy appetite.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sitting on a green patch of wind-swept tundra, oil executive Roger Herrera explains his dream for this immense wilderness at the top of the world.

The British Petroleum official hopes to see oil wells in the refuge, producing crude to fuel the nation for decades--enough oil to diminish OPEC’s hold on America and, not incidentally, to make a handsome profit for his company.

Then, when the oil is gone, he sees the development dismantled piece by piece, a triumph of his industry’s expertise and technology, leaving nothing behind but pristine tundra, undisturbed wildlife and the ceaseless Arctic wind.

Eight hundred miles away, at an open house for the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior in Anchorage, homemaker Catharina Marciel talks not of a dream, but of a nightmare.

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“There was a spill,” she says. “Everything was gone. Everything was black. And all the animals suffered.”

Hope and fear are driving the debate over whether to open up oil drilling in a small part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge--ANWR, as it is commonly called--an unspoiled reserve roughly the size of Indiana. The argument has come to embody the nation’s energy dilemma: environmental preservation versus resource development.

That conflict is playing out from the halls of Congress to the modest cabins of a tiny Eskimo village, from the rolling decks of a Greenpeace ship to the windy drilling pads of Prudhoe Bay.

It will come to a head in the next few weeks, when the Senate votes on a sweeping energy bill that includes a recommendation to open drilling in the refuge. A decision on ANWR has been delayed once, after the massive 1989 oil spill in Prince William Sound, 800 miles to the south.

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At issue is the coastal plain of the refuge, 1.5 million acres deep within the Arctic Circle. It is an inhuman land, variously described as America’s Serengeti by environmentalists--or “a flat, crummy place” by proponents of drilling.

The plain is seemingly hostile, with only four or five inches of rain a year and temperatures that average four degrees below zero in the winter. Three months out of 12, the sun does not brighten the blue-white fields of ice and snow.

But wildlife flourishes, especially in the fleeting summer. Swans, gulls and other birds migrate here to nest from as far away as the Antarctic, Australia and Africa. Woolly horned musk oxen rove the plain in herds.

And the 180,000 head of the Porcupine caribou herd surge into the coastal plain from the mountains of the Brooks Range every year as the snow melts, seeking food, relief from mosquitoes and wolves and a peaceful place to bear their young.

Opponents of oil drilling here--including all the major environmental groups--say oil development could expose the refuge to ecological disaster while helping perpetuate the nation’s addiction to crude oil.

At the very least, they argue that an oil development’s roads, processing plants, well pads, air strips and pipelines will irreparably harm--some say destroy--one of the last remaining intact ecosystems on the North American continent. They say that oil development has made a mess of Prudhoe Bay and the operating oil fields to the west.

But proponents of drilling--including President Bush and Alaska Gov. Walter J. Hickel--say that ANWR is the last, best hope to reduce the reliance on oil imports that, in part, drove America into the Persian Gulf War.

They argue that ANWR holds perhaps the largest untapped reserve of crude oil left in North America. The Interior Department’s average estimate for possible oil reserves is about 3.2 billion barrels--about 200 days’ supply at the nation’s current consumption level.

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California, which gets nearly half its oil from Alaska, would be a particular beneficiary.

To quell environmental fears, industry officials say that much has been learned since Prudhoe Bay’s massive oil fields were developed in the 1970s. Environmental effects, they say, can be minimized. The oil industry says, too, that the amount of development proposed in ANWR is so small relative to its total size that the refuge will hardly feel it.

Two and a half years after the Exxon Valdez fouled Alaska’s coastline, the national debate over energy and the environment centers again on this grand, wild, resource-rich state.

More than others, Alaskans have had to come to terms with their own attitudes toward the debate. The oil industry has made them richer, but it also has forced them to deal with one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.

Their struggle to sort out economic self-interest from environmental risk mirrors the nation’s.

“The environmental debate up here has always been between two stereotypes,” says Michele D. Brown, head of the Citizen’s Oversight Council, created in the wake of the spill. “You’ve got this Gore-Tex-clad granola-head on one side, and you’ve got this diesel-swilling hard-hat guy on the other, and they’re always going at each other. . . .

“I think what the Exxon Valdez did is raise the general environmental awareness,” she says. “People realized their own back yards are affected. You now have the middle interested in the subject.”

The promise of oil here is tantalizing. At a rare outcropping of subsurface rock, BP’s Herrera breaks off a crumbly piece and holds it up. The smell of petroleum is unmistakable. “You have the right rocks, the right structures and the right sequence in which various things occurred here,” he says.

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ANWR was created as a wildlife range in 1960, then upgraded to a refuge and expanded under the Jimmy Carter Administration in 1980 to its present size of about 19.3 million acres. At that time, most of the refuge was put off-limits--all except the coastal plain, making up about 8% of the refuge’s total acreage, which was set aside as a special study area for possible development.

From the air in summer, ANWR’s coastal plain appears as a fuzzy expanse of Kelly green, honeycombed with fissures from the spring thaw, punctuated here and there by shallow ponds and striated by the parallel tracks of caribou.

Upon landing, a visitor is overwhelmed by the vastness and silence of the place. To the east and west, the tundra stretches from horizon to horizon. To the south, the towering peaks of the Brooks Range dominate the skyline. To the north, the Beaufort Sea--studded with late summer ice--hugs the inhospitable coast.

No one knows for sure if there is any recoverable oil in ANWR. Only one exploratory oil well has been drilled--a 15,193-foot well sunk in 1985 by Chevron Corp. and British Petroleum on refuge land owned by the Inupiat Eskimos of the nearby village of Kaktovik.

The so-called “KIC No. 1" well was capped in 1986; all that remains is a six-foot length of rusty pipe sticking out of the mud, a favorite stop on tours conducted by BP and the other major oil operator on the North Slope, Atlantic Richfield Co. of Los Angeles.

The well’s results? Only about 10 people know, and they’re not saying. “The well cost us about $40 million, and our competitors would be very interested in knowing what it shows too,” said Tom Cook, exploration representative for Chevron U.S.A. in Alaska. “The honest answer is, that well is so tightly held, I don’t even know the results to it.”

The Interior Department estimates there could be as little as 590 million barrels or as much as 9.2 billion barrels of oil here.

An assessment of the coastal plain was completed by Interior in 1987. It concluded that the prospect of finding sizable oil reserves was good, about 19%.

That estimate was boosted to 46% in a controversial report by Interior earlier this year. The revision was challenged by drilling opponents, who argued that the department inflated the chances for political purposes. In July, a federal judge ruled that the department had to submit the revised estimate to more review.

If there is oil here, environmentalists argue that it wouldn’t last more than a year or two at the nation’s current rate of consumption.

But it would still be an astonishing amount of oil.

At 3.2 billion barrels, there would be enough to reduce by nearly 9% daily the oil imports that slake about half of the nation’s oil thirst. Production of such a reserve would provide net national economic benefits of $79.4 billion, including corporate earnings and federal royalties, the Interior Department estimates.

The industry argues that ANWR oil also would compensate for the natural decline of production from nearby Prudhoe Bay and related oil fields of the North Slope, which provide about a quarter of the nation’s total oil production. That production, now about 1.8 million barrels a day, has been dropping steadily from its peak in 1988.

Without ANWR, production will decline to the point that it will not sustain the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline, 70 miles away. In August, the pipeline’s operator, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., said that it might have to begin shutting down some of its 11 pump stations in the next two or three years to accommodate reduced flows.

Even if Congress approves a bill to open ANWR this year, actual oil production would not begin for as long as a dozen years while companies bid for leases, explore for oil, define any fields and build infrastructure and pipelines.

Despite ANWR’s potential oil resources, a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, concluded that greater conservation--including tougher auto mileage standards--could save the equivalent of 56.5 billion barrels of oil by 2020, roughly when ANWR would be brought into full oil production. That would make ANWR unnecessary, the NRDC says.

Predictably, proponents of drilling scoff at such estimates, arguing that demand for oil will likely remain high, since there are few economical alternatives to gasoline and diesel-powered cars and trucks yet.

But that hasn’t stopped environmental campaigns from making conservation a key issue.

Greenpeace, which sent the Rainbow Warrior on an Alaskan tour this summer, runs an advertisement with a photograph of Exxon Valdez captain Joseph Hazelwood. The headline reads: “It wasn’t his driving that caused the Alaskan oil spill. It was yours.”

On a foggy August morning in Port Valdez, Greenpeace activists launch inflatable rafts from the Rainbow Warrior, a converted trawler, and head for a berth at Alyeska’s marine terminal. It is the place where Alaskan crude oil is loaded onto oil tankers for shipment south.

From the water, four activists scale the berth’s iron support structure, handcuff themselves to it and unfurl a banner that reads: “Stop Arctic Drilling, Yield to Clean Energy.”

Eventually, Alyeska workers lower themselves on ropes, disconnect the protesters and hand them over to the U.S. Coast Guard.

“If they can’t figure out how not to pollute Prince William Sound, they have no business opening other things,” says Dorothy Smith, a Greenpeace spokeswoman.

In these post-Alaskan oil spill days, environmentalists and others are leery of industry promises to develop oil in ANWR with little environmental harm. They point to past practices at Prudhoe Bay and other oil fields to the west:

--A report by three major environmental groups documents ecological damage that, they argue, exceeds expectations throughout the oil fields of the North Slope. Each year, hundreds of spills occur on the North Slope, involving tens of thousands of gallons of oil and other materials, according to the report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Wildlife Federation and Trustees for Alaska.

Every day, oil operations generate tons of wastes, the report says. The oil fields have displaced more than 15,000 wild birds, oil field workers have killed polar bears and grizzly bears as “nuisances,” and 400,000 larval fish have been sucked into a seawater treatment plant, the report says.

--Arco was fined $200,000 by the state of Alaska after it understated the extent of an August, 1989, spill of oil from a pipeline onto the tundra of the Kuparuk oil field. Between 312 and 603 barrels of oil spilled when a valve failed. Arco first reported a spill of only one barrel, waiting two weeks before raising its estimate to the full amount.

“We did not intentionally underreport the size of the spill,” said Arco spokesman Ronnie Chappell. Nevertheless, Arco was told to improve its oil-spill assessment and reporting procedures, clean up the site and speed up maintenance of pipelines in the field. More than two years later, the spill site of about 1.4 acres is still being cleaned up.

--In 1988, the Environmental Protection Agency made an inspection of Arco’s crude oil topping unit (COTU)--basically a small refinery on the North Slope--and the nearby Surfcote storage area, in response to complaints from three former employees.

The EPA confirmed that some small oil spills went unreported, that some spills were simply covered up with gravel and that storage tanks of bolted steel construction continuously leaked diesel, gasoline, jet fuel and other liquids from 1969 to 1986, when the tanks were replaced.

“For the last year before the COTU was upgraded in 1987, Arco indicated that other partners in the COTU were unwilling to fund the project to correct problems associated with the bolted tanks,” said a 1988 memo from the governor’s office.

Arco says it began correcting problems at the plant and storage area long before the EPA’s inspection, Chappell said in a statement. He added that the company stopped using the Surfcote site and installed new fuel storage tanks at the topping plant five years ago. Remediation of both sites continues, he said.

--Interviews with current and former oil field workers give a glimpse of the way things worked on the slope. When a waste flare--a flame designed to burn off excess natural gas--malfunctioned at the crude oil topping unit, workers didn’t fix it. Instead, they relit the flame by firing a flare gun at it, or by shooting flaming arrows from a toy archery set, one former Arco employee said.

Other times, workers were told not to report spills of oil or diesel fuel, the employee said.

Arco declined to comment on the allegations.

A current oil field contract worker said he’d seen caribou injured when tripping over pipe carelessly left on the ground. Other times, he said, waste paper and other debris were allowed to blow away without being disposed of.

And he described regular drinking by some field workers, despite a ban on alcohol. The whiskey of choice: Crown Royale.

Herrera denied that caribou have been injured in accidents, and industry officials call into question the conclusions of environmentalists.

In any case, they say, things have improved vastly since the early boom days on the North Slope, whose fields spread out over more than 400 square miles of Arctic tundra. They include far-flung processing plants, drilling pads, waste pits and oil wells clad in green or orange metal structures to shield against the cold.

All told, the operations directly cover about 8,200 acres, not counting pipelines, Arco says.

Development of ANWR, by comparison, would affect about 12,650 acres--or about 0.8% of the coastal plain--the Interior Department has estimated.

But industry officials argue that new technology would reduce the size--or “footprint"--of such development, with much less environmental effect. The Endicott Field, BP’s newest North Slope drilling site--on two man-made islands just offshore--includes accommodations for 150 workers, space for 100 oil wells and related processing plants, but covers only 55 acres.

Elsewhere, a new BP plant now in experimental stages will eventually treat all “cuttings"--drilling wastes from the oil fields--for reinjection into stable underground rock formations. The plant will eliminate the need for so-called reserve pits, the unsightly and at times leaky open waste basins where workers once disposed of the water and drilling clays used in oil production.

In another part of the oil field, BP officials proudly show off a so-called revegetation site--a patch of tundra where all traces of drilling have been removed, the fragile soil has been reseeded and some vegetation now struggles to return.

Still, the threat of harm to ANWR is enough, environmentalists argue, that the coastal plain should be put off limits, whatever the prospects or need for oil there.

“You have operating on the Arctic coastal plain one of the top 10 wildlife spectacles in the world,” says Allen E. Smith, Alaska regional director for the Wilderness Society in Anchorage. “It’s on a par with what happens on the plains of Africa. It’s on a par with the giant whale migrations.

“And some of us value that,” Smith adds, “for both its intrinsic value and also the biological and ecological study value for management of the rest of the planet.”

But for Alaska Gov. Hickel, the question is simple.

“Where are you going to get the things that people need? . . . You go where you’re not in competition with people’s living--the Arctic. . . . “Wildlife is important,” Hickel says. “But so is independence.”

Drilling in the Arctic

Debate over the nation’s energy future is centering on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which drilling proponents believe is the last, best chance for a sizeable oil reserve. Environmentalists oppose drilling, arguing that the refuge is irreplaceable wilderness. A small portion of the area under question--the so-called “1002" area, or coastal plain--is owned by Native Alaskans of the Kaktovik Inupiat Corp. and the Arctic Slope Regional Corp.

Comparing Sizes

The area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would cover most of Southern California.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge at a Glance:

Created: 1960

Current size: 19 million acres, larger than 10 states.

Location: Northeast corner of Alaska, bordered on the north by the Beaufort Sea, on the east by the U.S.-Canadian border and on the northeast by the Canning River. The entire refuge lies within the Arctic Circle.

Residents: About 200 Inupiat Eskimos in the village of Kaktovik on Barter Island in the Beaufort Sea.

Wildlife: 180,000 head of caribou, as well as grizzly and polar bears, muskoxen, wolves, moose and several bird species.

Average Summer Temperature, July: 41 degrees

Average Winter Temperature, February: --4 degrees

Estimated oil reserves: Between 590 million and 9.2 billion barrels


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