Alaska Oil Drilling Taps Into Political Fight

During winter, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a white and freezing expanse. In summer, it's green and spectacular. Regardless of the time of year, it's a piece of land at the center of a hot debate.

Five U.S. senators and two Cabinet secretaries flew to the top of the world recently to explore the impact and potential of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, otherwise known as ANWR (search).

Some Alaskans rolled out the un-welcome mat. "We want you to go home. We don't want oil development," demonstrators told the officials upon their arrival.

But the protesters are actually a minority. Roughly three-out-of-four Alaskans and local natives in Kaktovic support the drilling, as do all of the Republicans who went on the tour. Democrats who planned to take part backed out because of pressure from their party's leadership, some on the trip said.

"I think you really have to see it for yourself to appreciate the vastness and to appreciate the technology and the land," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (search), R-Alaska.

Added Interior Secretary Gale Norton (search): "When you look at ANWR, in comparison to our resources elsewhere in the country, this is clearly the largest untapped sourced of oil based on what we know today."

ANWR contains between 5 and 16 billion barrels of oil, according to government figures. At peak production, it could yield more than 1 million barrels per day — nearly as much as the United States imports from Saudi Arabia and Venezuela combined.

Eight months a year, ANRW's coastal plain is covered in ice. Thanks to "directional drilling," which can sink as many as 50 wells from a single 10-acre site, no platform will be anywhere near some spectacular mountains, proponents of the plan argue.

ANWR represents a small portion of Alaska and the oil exploration area is even smaller. Drilling pads total 2,000 acres, or less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the refuge.

Last Stand for Environment or First Step to Energy Independence?

Today, ANWR is as much a symbol as it is a place. To environmentalists, it is a last stand and the first step toward an alternative energy economy. To supporters, it is the most logical, sensible thing to do to reduce our dependence on unstable foreign countries.

The Gwich'in Indians, who live near the refuge, are concerned that drilling for ANWR's oil will hurt migrating caribou.

"We have always been caretakers of the porcupine caribou herd because they have always taken care of us and we take care of them," said Lucy Sweet of the Gwinch'in Indian Nation (search).

But experience suggests a different story. Since Alaska's Prudhoe Bay began pumping oil 30 years ago, the caribou herd there has grown from 3,000 to 36,000 animals.

"We need exploration development for our economy," said Richard Glenn, a Kaktovic resident. "We don't have forests, we don't have agriculture, we barely have tourism and so this is our only economy."

Party Divide Over ANWR Issue

Republicans prefer to see ANWR this time of year when it looks like flat, frozen tundra — miserable for people but not bad for oil drilling. Democrats prefer summer, when the area becomes a magnet for wildlife.

"Oil drilling and wildlife — they just don't go together," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (search), D-Calif., who has so far successfully led the fight to stop drilling there.

But supporters of ANWR drilling insist Alaska's natural beauty is safe.

"The risks are going to be minimal, if any, and America stands to gain enormously," said Republican Sen. Pete Dominici (search) of New Mexico.

But a new balance of power on Capitol Hill means the next vote on the issue may be different. Domenici says his party has the votes to push the legislation through.

"I think the prospects are pretty hopeful that we'll be able to get something passed in this session," added Sen. John Thune (search), R-S.D.

In the November elections, supporters of oil development gained four votes in the Senate, giving Republicans a two-vote edge — 51 to 49, which is all that's needed as long as the ANWR measure is attached to a budget resolution. Sources told FOX News that two more Republican moderates may be willing to support ANWR; debate could come as early as next week.

From a historical perspective, it was Democratic President Jimmy Carter and a Democratic Congress who set aside more than 1 million acres of ANWR for oil exploration in 1980.

Click on the video box above for reports by FOX News' William LaJeunesse.