How ANWR Works

Oil Drilling Image Gallery

ANWR landscape
Image courtesy Jo Goldmann/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Wind River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This tranquil scene doesn't hint at the controversy the vast refuge has generated. See more oil drilling pictures.

­In 1960, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Fred Seaton set aside 8.9 million acres (3.6 million hectares) in Alaska's northeast corner, calling it the Arctic National Wildlife Range. Seaton did this to protect the region's "unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values" [source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service].

The famed refuge is home to many species of wildlife, including caribou, bears, musk oxen, sheep, wolves, moose and many others. Although the area appears to­ be a barren frozen wasteland during half of the year, it's often described as the "American Serengeti." Little did Seaton know that this wildlife refuge would fuel a heated controversy that remains unresolved to this day.

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­The controversy began in 1968 with the discovery of the largest oil field in North America in nearby Prudhoe Bay. Prudhoe Bay was developed as an oil-producing region, and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was built to transport this oil down the length of Alaska from Prudhoe Bay all the way to Valdez, Alaska. Reserves of oil also were thought to exist within the Arctic National Wildlife Range at the time.

In 1980, President Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which doubled the size of the Arctic National Wildlife Range and renamed it the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). This act designated most of ANWR as wilderness and, therefore, protected it from oil and gas exploration. However, one small area remained a remote possibility. Dubbed Area 1002 (after section 1002 of the act), the region was open to exploration only if Congress were to authorize it.

Since 1980, many interested parties have been very curious about that authori­zation, especially since the U.S. Geological Survey estimated in 1998 that the area could contain as many as 16 billion barrels of oil [source: U.S. DOE]. Not surprisingly, Congress has faced numerous calls to authorize oil exploration and development in Area 1002.

Pro-energy groups say that drilling for oil in ANWR will help alleviate America's dependence on foreign oil. Environmental groups oppose disturbing this wilder­ness. This controversy has landed in the center of several presidential and congressional elections. Even Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin disagreed on the issue during their 2008 bid for the U.S. presidency and vice presidency.

In this article, we'll explore ANWR's Area 1002, its potential oil reserves and its wildlife. We'll also look at how oil development in ANWR could affect world oil production and U.S. consumption. First, let's get a better picture of this disputed region.