Naming rights and the battle for Alaska oil on federal land

By Dermot Cole, Alaska Dispatch News - June 16, 2017
Caribou from the Porcupine herd gather in a drainage of the Brooks Range in ANWR, June 2009. (Richard J. Murphy / ADN archive)
Caribou from the Porcupine herd gather in a drainage of the Brooks Range in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, June 2009. (Richard J. Murphy / ADN archive)

It would be easy to justify oil exploration in something called the “Arctic Oil Reserve,” a name once invented by the Alaska congressional delegation for a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But not if the spot in question is called “America’s Serengeti,” the crown jewel of the nation’s wildlife refuge system.

It is also an easy matter to justify oil exploration in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, but call it the “Western Arctic Reserve,” a name invented by environmental groups, and a different image comes to mind.

“The reserve is cursed with an ugly name, but it’s far too beautiful and special to throw away,” the Wilderness Society says about its preference for taking petroleum out of the name.

Decades of dueling descriptions of the same pieces of real estate reflect conflicting visions about the future of wild lands and oil development in Alaska.

A lot of it is marketing, political spin and public perception. Is the coastal plain of ANWR a barren and inhospitable wasteland or nature’s equivalent of a cathedral? It depends on whether you ask the promoters or opponents of oil exploration.

This old fight about language and land is likely to intensify with an announcement by the Trump administration to promote oil and gas activity on the North Slope.

On May 31, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed an order he said was designed to “jump start” energy production in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and lead to a new oil and gas assessment of a 1.5-million-acre portion of ANWR that has been at the center of energy arguments in Alaska for nearly 40 years.

It would take congressional action to open that part of ANWR, a move endorsed by just about everyone elected to anything in Alaska since 1980, and opposed by just about every environmental group in the country.

Well head of the KIC #1 exploratory well (with drilling platform in the background) on the Arctic Coastal Plain in ANWR near the Jago River, July 16, 1986. (Fran Durner / ADN archive 1986)
Well head of the KIC #1 exploratory well (with drilling platform in the background) on the Arctic Coastal Plain in ANWR near the Jago River. (Fran Durner / ADN archive 1986)

For long periods, ANWR came up as often as the mythical gas pipeline, and the state poured millions into lobbying for drilling. At the same time, defending the refuge became a rallying cry for environmental groups.

The 1980 federal lands act said the coastal plain of the refuge should be studied and that elected officials in the future would decide whether to allow drilling.

The battle over the petroleum reserve has not been nearly as intense, but that could change with discoveries during the last two decades and especially this year with a major find by ConocoPhillips in the northeast part of the reserve.

“The only path for energy dominance is a path through the great state of Alaska,” Zinke said.

The petroleum reserve is about the size of Indiana, while ANWR is about the size of South Carolina. The two areas are about 100 miles apart with the Prudhoe Bay oil field and the trans-Alaska pipeline between them.

One of the historical sidelights to this situation referenced in a news story the other day is that while the name of the petroleum reserve sounds for all the world like an area designated for petroleum development, the name of the wildlife refuge doesn’t.

Zinke said the petroleum reserve was “set up with the sole intention of oil and gas production, however years of politics over policy put roughly half of the NPR-A off-limits.”

The law calls for a competitive program of oil and gas leasing in the reserve, but environmentalists who don’t want to see expanded oil leasing are quick to point to legislation in 1976 that called for “maximum protection” of surface values in areas such as along the Utukok River and Teshekpuk Lake, an important site for waterfowl and caribou.

The so-called 1002 area of ANWR along the coast, about 1.5 million acres, could be opened to oil development by Congress under terms of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Zinke called for the new assessment as a first step in advancing that cause.

With some interludes, there have been continuous battles since the Reagan administration on this issue, all of them lost by the Alaska developers pushing for oil exploration.

After the Reagan Interior Department backed drilling in 1986, Susan Alexander of the Wilderness Society said that activity would “destroy America’s Serengeti” and be like melting the Statue of Liberty for its copper.

In an attempt to counter the power of such images, the congressional delegation came up with “Arctic Oil Reserve” as the new name and said they favored exploration on a 1.5-million-acre section of “the coastal plain of the AOR,” as Sen. Frank Murkowski told his colleagues in 1998. At other times, the delegation said the AOR was limited to the coastal plain.

The idea of the name change was they would no longer be trying to open a portion of the wildlife refuge, but an oil reserve.

“We are not trying to lease the wilderness. It never was wilderness. It has always been available for oil and gas leasing,” Sen. Ted Stevens said in 1995.

The Resource Development Council said that the Arctic Oil Reserve was “formerly known as the coastal plain of ANWR.”

When reporters asked about ANWR at a 1995 news conference, the members of the delegation frowned and said they wouldn’t call it that anymore, the Anchorage Daily News reported. It was a reserve, not a refuge.

The same week, Stevens gave a speech in which he didn’t remember right away what the “OR” in “AOR” stood for. “Even I slip once in a while,” he said.

Despite the AOR campaign, the invented name never caught on.

Bruce Babbit, interior secretary in the Clinton administration, said the American people would see through the attempted name change and understand “that even those who are dedicated to opening this area to the oil industry understand that to do so will be its death knell as a wildlife refuge.”

The refuge is still known by one of the most awkward acronyms on the planet, often cited by environmental groups as a bureaucratic concoction that hides the three words that make a fight about oil reserves so intense — national, wildlife and refuge.

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Arctic Now, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at)