AS America's largest oil field runs dry at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, Congress must make a Solomonic decision: Whether to open the nearby Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. Solomon's wisdom would help as lawmakers sort the conflicting claims of particular interests, from Eskimos to oil companies, from Gwich'in Indians to the Audubon Society.
Congress is torn by two urgent priorities. The nation needs more oil, but it also must protect its few remaining wilderness areas. Though the matter is far from settled, the opponents of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) may be getting the upper hand.
The White House, rejecting the pleas of conservationists, wants desperately to drill. Officials say that without more oil, the economy will weaken as billions of dollars are spent for imported petroleum.
Environmentalists, however, are furious about oil company plans to poke holes in ANWR. The wilderness area, a little smaller than South Carolina, contains the last 100 miles of Arctic Ocean coastline not yet opened to development.
Brooks Yeager of the National Audubon Society says drilling in ANWR will damage a ``fragile and biologically rich Arctic ecosystem.'' He urges conservation to offset the loss of Arctic oil.
The ANWR struggle has divided even the Native Americans of Alaska. Along the icy edge of the Arctic Ocean, where temperatures frequently hover at minus-40 degrees, 5,600 Inupiat Eskimos scattered in eight villages adamantly favor drilling in ANWR. They own mineral rights there to what could be millions, or even billions, of barrels of oil.
Nearby, the Gwich'in, the northernmost Indian tribe in North America, protest that oil development threatens the migrating herds of porcupine caribou upon which their survival depends. ``The very future of our people [is] endangered,'' says a Gwich'in resolution to Congress and the president.
The ANWR debate highlights a growing split on US energy policy. On one side are the traditional producers of energy in the US (oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear), who are often supported by the White House. On the other side are advocates of ``soft'' energy, such as wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower, and strict conservation.
``Soft'' energy supporters argue that the president's National Energy Strategy (NES), released earlier this year, cozies up to traditional energy industries, while failing to support conservation, solar power, and other alternatives.
But federal officials say there is no alternative during the next 20 years to greater oil production from every source, including ANWR. The NES notes that ANWR ``has the potential to produce the most significant future oil discoveries in the United States.''
The Department of Energy estimates ANWR could pump 870,000 barrels a day by 2005, offsetting much of the lost production from the declining fields at Prudhoe Bay. Altogether, experts say the odds are 50-50 that ANWR contains a huge ``elephant'' field with 3.6 billion barrels of oil. There is also a reasonable possibility that it could hold as much as 8.8 billion barrels, making it nearly Prudhoe's size.
All these numbers, however, can easily overlook the human face of this debate - faces like that of Brenda Itta Lee, an Inupiat Eskimo. Ms. Lee was in Washington recently to explain why ANWR's oil would be so important to her people.
BEFORE Prudhoe brought new wealth to Alaska, Lee observes that her people had no high schools at their villages, no hospitals, no fresh food, no electricity, and a water supply of poor quality.
Without high schools, hundreds of young Inupiats were sent away every year, beginning at age 13, to Indian boarding schools in Oklahoma, Oregon, and Sitka, Alaska. Meanwhile, many elderly Eskimos had to travel far from home to receive extended medical care.
``So our young and our elders, the very fiber of our society ... were sent away,'' Lee says. ``That really destroyed the close family unit.''
Today, Prudhoe Bay oil money has helped to build a high school and a grocery store in every village and a hospital in Barrow. One can even buy fresh milk now along the Arctic coast, though it costs $5 a gallon.
However, the Prudhoe field is slowing down. That means the $68 million to $100 million which the Inupiats collect every year in property taxes from oil companies will also decline, and then halt in less than 20 years, without ANWR drilling.
``We do not want to become welfare recipients. Nor do we want to become wards of the federal and state government,'' Lee says.
But if Congress rejects ANWR drilling, she adds, ``they will have exercised, unfortunately, a very grave injustice to the Inupiat Eskimos ... because 92,000 acres of that land in ANWR that we have a title to would be locked up.''
Even if there is oil production, the drilling platforms, roads, pipelines, and other facilities would have a ``footprint'' of only 13,000 acres - about the size of a large airport. Oil exploration will hardly impact the environment, drillers insist.
But Gwich'in Indians disagree. They say the drill sites would threaten the critical calving grounds of the region's 180,000 porcupine caribou. The Gwich'ins, who are mostly Episcopalian, are strongly supported by their church leaders, who explained in a recent statement:
``Gwich'in people, estimated at 7,000, have the inherent right to continue their way of life, and this right is recognized and affirmed by civilized nations in the international covenants on human rights, which read in part: `In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.' ''
Sarah James, a Gwich'in from Arctic Village, Alaska, told a Senate committee last month: ``This is not just an environmental issue. It is about the survival of an ancient culture that depends on the caribou.
``In my village, about 75 percent of our protein comes from the caribou. It's not just what we eat; it is who we are. Caribou are our life. It's our stories and songs and the whole way of the world,'' she says.
So emotions run high. But oil men get emotional, too. A US Geological Survey of the ANWR oil region a decade ago found 26 underground structures that may hold petroleum or natural gas.
Some structures are small, but others are huge. Though they may all be dry, the potential is there. One published report says that dome No. 18 is large enough to contain 300 billion barrels of oil - more than Saudi Arabia's total proven oil reserves.