The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an unspoiled preserve rich in polar bears and caribou, has one other valuable feature: It could be brimming with oil.
Should the petroleum industry be allowed to exploit this "black gold," despite the environmental risk? Americans aren't sure.
President Bush, a former oilman, has pledged to open 8 percent of the Arctic refuge to drilling along the coast of the icy Beaufort Sea. Yesterday, Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska was expected to introduce legislation to increase US energy supplies, which would allow drilling in the Arctic refuge. But the idea faces furious opposition, both from Democrats in Congress and from a wide swath of environmentally conscious Americans.
Now a nationwide poll sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor has found that Americans are deeply divided on the Arctic drilling issue. The Monitor/TIPP survey reveals 45.7 percent of the US public opposes oil production in the Arctic refuge, while 45.5 percent are in favor.
It could hardly be closer.
The poll, taken Feb. 15 to 19, included interviews with 943 Americans over the age of 18. It had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.
The drilling controversy comes at a politically sensitive moment in the ongoing debate over energy policy in the United States.
People have grappled all winter with rapidly rising prices for natural gas, shortages of electricity in the West (particularly California), and uncomfortably high prices for imported oil. Crude oil currently sells for about $29 a barrel.
While public feelings run deep about protecting fragile areas like the Arctic, the higher costs of energy are also eating into Americans' household budgets. Many see drilling in the Arctic as a viable option.
"Drilling for more oil is the answer," says Ryan Flener, a fourth-grade teacher in Cynthiana, Ind., and one of those interviewed for the Monitor/TIPP poll.
"Drilling for oil in Alaska is an opportunity we have, and I don't see us taking anything away from the wilderness," he says. "It will help out by bringing prices down, and we also won't need to be so dependent on OPEC."
Those on the other side of the issue, such as attorney John Lear from Salt Lake City, hold equally strong views.
"I see no need to disturb ... one of the last great places left in the world," says Mr. Lear, who has visited the Arctic refuge. He says Mr. Bush should encourage alternative sources of energy, rather than exploit the refuge for a "drop in the bucket" that would provide perhaps "six weeks' or six months' worth of fuel."
The territory the president wants to open, known as "1002 Area," measures 2,344 square miles, or about twice the size of Rhode Island. The entire refuge contains 29,297 square miles, about the size of Maine.
A 1998 study by the US Geological Survey estimated that the 1002 Area holds between 1.9 billion barrels and 9.4 billion barrels of "economically recoverable" oil, assuming a price of $24 a barrel. To put that in perspective, Americans use 7 billion barrels of oil a year.
Some opponents of drilling argue that because of the environmental risks, the Arctic oil should be kept in the ground as a strategic reserve, to be used only in a dire national emergency. Proponents note that US oil output is falling steadily, and exploiting Arctic oil would create thousands of jobs for Americans.
In addition to Arctic drilling, the Monitor/TIPP survey explored several other current aspects of the national energy issue. Among the other findings:
* Two out of 3 Americans polled said that they are "very confident" or "somewhat confident" that Bush "will deal effectively with America's energy problems."
* Half of those surveyed said the best way to improve America's energy posture would be to develop new energy technologies and sources.
* One-third of those polled said energy companies are primarily to blame for rising prices for oil, gasoline, and electricity. But nearly as many thought OPEC countries were the major culprits.
* Nearly half of all Americans say the state of California's own government policies were the biggest reason that Californians have recently experienced shortages of electricity.
The survey found that when it comes to energy, Americans often break along partisan lines. For example, Democrats most often blame rising prices for oil, natural gas, and electricity on energy companies, while Republicans are more likely to blame OPEC countries.
On the Arctic drilling issue, Democrats oppose exploring for oil by nearly a 2-to-1 margin. Republicans favor drilling there by more than a 2-to-1 margin.
When it comes to solutions, Republicans are more inclined to support efforts to boost oil production, while Democrats are more inclined to look for ways to conserve oil. Both camps, however, strongly favor finding alternative energy technologies to reduce dependence on oil.
Confidence in Bush's ability to solve US energy problems also varies. Nearly 92 percent of Republicans say he will do a good job on energy issues, while only 48 percent of Democrats feel that way.
Another notable divide comes along age lines. Americans who are at least 65 years old are solidly in favor of drilling in the Arctic. But those under the age of 35 oppose drilling by an equally wide margin. The 35-to-64 age group is closely divided, but leans slightly in favor of producing Arctic oil.
Staff writer Steven Savides contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society