THE fight over oil exploration in Alaska could turn into one of the major environment-versus-the-economy struggles of the 104th Congress.
In recent years, the oil industry and environmentalists have maintained an uneasy truce in Alaska. The industry knew it didn't have the votes in Congress to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, and activists didn't push too hard for permanent protection of a unique area biologists describe as ``America's Serengeti.''
But with a Republican-led Congress (including conservative Alaskans in charge of House and Senate committees dealing with natural resources), domestic oil production at its lowest point in 40 years, and oil imports now topping the 50-percent mark, that cease-fire is likely to be broken.
Pro-environment lawmakers last week announced legislation that would designate the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as wilderness, thereby putting it permanently off-limits to oil drilling.
``Wilderness designation of the plain is needed to prevent the destruction of this unique and fragile ecosystem,'' said Rep. Bruce Vento (D) of Minnesota, author of the House bill, which now has 65 co-sponsors.
While most supporters of protection for ANWR are Democrats, the author of a companion bill in the Senate is a Republican - William Roth of Delaware, who wrote the 1980 legislation that set aside 19 million acres in northeastern Alaska as a national refuge.
That original Alaska lands act designated all but 1.5 million acres of the refuge as wilderness, leaving out the 125-mile coastal plain. This meant that, although it would take an act of Congress, the plain could be open to development.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service has described the area as ``the only conservation system unit in North America that protects, in an undisturbed condition, the complete spectrum of arctic and subarctic ecosystems.'' It is home to polar bears, musk oxen, wolves, Dall sheep, grizzly bears, moose, caribou, and millions of birds. The Porcupine caribou herd (named after the river across which it migrates each year) helps sustain some 7,000 native people in Canada and Alaska.
Industry and some federal government estimates put the amount of economically recoverable crude oil beneath the surface of ANWR at several billion barrels.
Pro-development interests say this could be an important source of high-paying jobs as well as add to national security.
For the first time in history, the US last year imported more than half of the oil it used. The federal Energy Information Agency predicts that 65 percent of US energy consumption in 2000 will come from abroad.
``The simple fact is, if the US wants to increase its domestic supply of energy, we need to open up those areas that hold the greatest promise for finding new reserves of oil,'' Mobil Corporation said in newspaper and magazine ads last year.
But predicting the amount of oil beneath the ground based on test wells is an inexact science.
``The expectation for oil exploration in this pristine region is excessive,'' Senator Roth says. ``There is only a 1-in-5 chance of finding any economically recoverable oil in the refuge. And if oil is found, the [expected] daily production of 400,000 barrels per day is less than 0.7 percent of world production - far too small to meet America's energy needs for more than a few months.''
Inflate your tires
Environmentalists assert that Americans could save that much oil just by properly inflating their vehicle tires.
Activists also warn that the equipment and activity of oil exploration, recovery, and transport would disturb habitat and threaten wildlife. They are particularly concerned about polar bears, which are protected by international treaty.
Industry spokesmen say such fears are unfounded.
``We believe we can do our work in an environmentally sound way,'' says Joe Lastelic, spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute. The Mobil Corporation media ads touted ``the industry's proven ability to explore and produce oil and gas without causing any permanent harm to the environment.''
The two sides are now maneuvering for political advantage on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Lastelic of the oil industry trade group says the new GOP majority ``gives us hope.'' And he notes that House majority leader Richard Armey (R) of Texas has expressed interest in opening ANWR to oil exploration as a way to raise money for the treasury.
Hand of Murkowski
Environmental groups that had a hand in crafting the new ANWR wilderness bill were careful to word it so that it would go to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which is chaired by moderate Republican John Chaffee of Rhode Island - rather than the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which is headed by Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) of Alaska.
``Surely Murkowski wants to get his mitts on this as an energy bill,'' says an environmentalist in Washington active on Alaska issues.
Senator Murkowski recently said it was ``certainly unfortunate'' that the Clinton administration did not include new oil revenues from Alaska's North Slope in figuring its 1996 budget.
Speaking to the National Mining Association last week, Rep. Don Young (R) of Alaska, who now chairs the House Resources Committee, said he would push such legislation during the 104th Congress.