Issue in Brief

It's hard to find a more charged "environment vs. energy" debate than the one over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

The 19 million acres of Alaskan land (USGS) – uninhabited by humans, but home to 45 species of land and marine mammals, 36 species of fish, and 180 species of birds (FWS) – is estimated to have between 5.7 - 16 billion barrels worth of “recoverable” oil (meaning how much can realistically be used). Most of that oil - between 4.3 and 11.8 billion barrels - is found in 1.5 acres on the coast known as the “1002 Area” (USGS). It's this part that advocates of energy development say the U.S. should open up for drilling – after all if we're short on energy, why not dip into every reserve we have? But those who want to keep ANWR out of bounds say it's not worth the price.


With gas prices soaring, and the world demand for oil only rising, advocates for drilling in ANWR say we can't afford to pass up over 10 billion barrels of oil sitting in our backyard. Tapping more oil at home means less dependence on foreign imports, which makes economic and national security sense. Some environmental scientists admit that even though there is a risk for disturbing the habitat and wildlife in the region, the risk is very small because most of the drilling will be done on the coast, not in the middle of the designated “wilderness” area.


Environmentalists think the need to protect the habitat and wildlife in ANWR outweighs the benefit of tapping into its oil resources. They claim drilling could disrupt the delicate balance of nature. The oil gains of ANWR, on the other hand, are small; even the best estimates on how much oil we can pull out of the 1002 region only add up to a year and a half of our oil needs (we burn about 20 million barrels a day, according to EIA). At peak production levels – about 20 years away – the reserve would draw 600,000 to 1.9 million barrels a day. (EIA) If you add that to the world's total oil production, ANWR would bring oil prices down about 30-50 cents a barrel (today's barrels are over $60). (EIA)

Where things stand now

Congress made a handful of attempts to okay drilling in ANWR during its 2005-2006 session, but ANWR managed to slip through drill-free. With democrats taking over Congress in 2007, it looks like the pumps will keep at bay for at least another two years.

ANWR's mini me: With less media fanfare, environmentalists are waging a smaller battle over 389,000 acres 150 miles west of ANWR which the administration opened for exploration in January 2006 - for a possible 2 billion barrels of oil. NYT

Updated November, 2006

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