PRUDHOE BAY, ALASKA — RISING along the tundra shores of the Arctic Ocean, 1,200 miles from the North Pole and hundreds of miles from the nearest tree, is a complex of gleaming metal edifices, pipes, flares, electric lights, and gravel roadways. A quarter of the domestic oil supply of the United States is pumped from the oil fields here. Still steaming from subterranean heat, it is fed into the mouth of the trans-Alaska pipeline. Prudhoe Bay, North America's largest oil field with 11 billion recoverable barrels, accounts for 15 percent of the US domestic supply.
But after 13 years, America's biggest oil source is starting to run dry. In 1988 Prudhoe production started a 10- to 15-percent annual decline. Within 10 years, state estimates say, production from all North Slope oil fields will be less than half of the current output of 1.7 million to 1.8 million barrels a day.
The decline worried producers long before the Persian Gulf crisis erupted. To squeeze as much oil as possible from the sandstone 6,000 to 10,000 feet below the surface, British Petroleum Exploration (Alaska) Inc. and Arco Alaska Inc., the major North Slope operators, have started enhanced-recovery techniques, such as reinjecting water and natural gas beneath the tundra to increase subterranean pressure on remaining oil.
They are also working on increasing the natural gas that is pumped up along with oil. However, gas prices are too low to make it worthwhile to ship the gas to market; it is either reinjected or burned off.
After the invasion of Kuwait, the US Department of Energy called for North Slope producers to speed up production. But trying to meet short-term demand poses risks of sacrificing long-term recovery. One enhanced-recovery technique, known as ``fracturing,'' which involves cracking oil deposits and filling in the cracks with porous sand granules, can result in cave-ins or clogs that permanently seal wells.
Even if applied properly, enhanced-recovery methods only postpone the inevitable here. So industry, an oil-thirsty nation, and the state of Alaska - which receives 85 percent of its government revenues from oil taxes, royalties, and other fees - have turned their eyes 100 miles eastward, to the coastal plain of the 19 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
That 1.5 million-acre plain could hold between 500 million to 9.5 billion barrels of recoverable oil, according to Department of Interior estimates.
The plain also holds a rich ecosystem, the last remaining stretch of Arctic coastline still protected from oil development and the continent's only panorama encompassing both the magnificent Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean. At Prudhoe Bay, the marshy coastal plain stretches 175 miles from mountain to sea; in the refuge, the plain is only about 30 miles wide.
``There is no place in North America where you can have this kind of view,'' says Don Voros, who served this summer as the refuge's acting manager, as he surveys the mist-covered mountains to the south and the Arctic beach to the north.
The fight for the coastal plain is the nation's most pressing development debate, say groups like the Sierra Club and Audubon Society. Mr. Voros says he sympathizes with the environmentalists. ``They will definitely argue that the aesthetic qualities of the refuge will be damaged for over a century, at least for our lifetime, if we do in fact go into a development stage.''
Where environmentalists see beauty in primordial land populated by caribou, bear, and musk oxen, oil industry officials see beauty in a supply of deep, warm oil that they say can help wean the nation from its foreign dependency.
When the refuge boundaries were drawn up in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, 8 million acres were set aside as wilderness. In a compromise with the oil industry, the fate of the coastal plain was left for Congress to decide later.
Industry says that time is now. The coastal plain's oil wealth is obvious to Tom Cook, Alaskan exploration agent for Chevron USA. Mr. Cook admits that drilling would change the refuge plain but says the sacrifice of wilderness would be worth it. ``My argument to that is you've already got a lot of that in Alaska,'' he says, pointing to the state's 57 million acres of designated wilderness.
But drilling for oil in the refuge would be no economic cinch. For production to be economically feasible, Alaska North Slope crude prices must be at least $33 to $40 a barrel in 1984 dollars, according to a 1986 Bureau of Land Management study.
Production would require a pipeline connecting the coastal plain with the trans-Alaska pipeline. Industry would have to meet the challenge of setting up in a zone now home only to the animals of the Arctic.
Oil development in the refuge would also require better and costlier environmental protection than at Prudhoe Bay, manager Voros says. Pipelines might have to be buried out of the path of the Porcupine caribou herd, which migrates in large masses.
Some say the oil industry's fixation on the Arctic refuge is misplaced. They argue that officials should focus instead on tapping other Alaskan fields now out of reach of economically; some point to the offshore oil fields that have been held up temporarily by high costs and regulatory debates. Still others are holding out for a gas pipeline to carry the unused natural gas to market.
Even James Ross, president of BP America, is cautioning those who see immediate energy salvation in the refuge's coastal plain. ``I don't actually think that ANWR is the very first thing that people should be thinking about,'' Mr. Ross said in an August press conference. ``To wait for eight to 12 years to get oil, when we've got a crisis on our hands today that is going to have implications over the next few years, ... I think we ought to think of one or two other things first.''