In 1980 an act of Congress set aside nearly 20 million acres of Alaska's North Slope tundra to create the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Less than 100 miles from the refuge is Prudhoe Bay, North America's largest oil field. Spread across what was once part of the largest intact wilderness area in the United States, Prudhoe Bay and its neighboring oil fields account for approximately 25 percent of U.S. domestic oil production.
In section 1002 of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which created ANWR, Congress deferred a decision regarding future management of 1.5 million acres of North Slope coastal plain (called the 1002 area) in recognition of the area's potential as an oil and gas reserve as well as its significance as a unique wildlife habitat, home to polar bears, grizzly bears, musk oxen, caribou, and some hundred and thirty-five species of birds.
As global fears of a disrupted and dwindling oil supply mount, the debate over the fate of the 1002 area is raging. The option of opening ANWR to oil leasing has become a political hot potato, hardly a climate conducive to calmly weighing the information and options that lie ahead. Political rhetoric aside, the evidence provided by all sides seems contradictory not just in perspective, but in facts. From widely disparate estimates of recoverable oil to contrasting predictions of exploration's impact on the land, it remains hard to decipher just what's at stake when it comes to drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.