As the 19-seat Beechcraft breaks from the clouds over the northeastern coast of Alaska, the oil industry’s long-cherished prize comes into view. At first glance, you’d never think that the Eskimo village and brown tundra below would represent the “longest running, most acrimonious environmental battle in American history,” as naturalist Peter Matthiessen once called it. But it’s not what’s on top of the ground that Big Oil covets—it’s the billions of barrels of crude oil that may lie below.
For more than four decades, Alaska’s congressional delegation and their oil and gas allies have been pushing to drill here in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR. And more than once they’ve almost succeeded. (The devastating Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound on the southern coast of Alaska in 1989 was a major setback.) There’s a simple reason for their persistence: ANWR is “the largest unexplored, potentially productive geologic onshore basin in the United States,” the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported in 2000.
It’s also one of the rare pieces of unspoiled wilderness left in the world—home to polar bear dens and caribou calving grounds—and remains much the same as it was 10,000 years ago. That’s why environmentalists have fought so fiercely over the years to protect it. “ANWR is an American Serengeti. You can have the oil. Or you can have this pristine place. You can’t have both. No compromise,” says Robert Mrazek, a former New York congressman and chair emeritus of the Alaska Wilderness League.
The argument for exploring in ANWR gained traction as U.S. oil production dropped precipitously throughout the 1980s and ’90s and the early 2000s. In recent years, however, the so-called fracking boom has caused oil production to surge in the U.S., from a low of around 5 million barrels per day in 2008 to well over 9 million barrels daily this year. America is now gushing out so much crude that in 2016 Congress lifted a 40-year-old ban on exports.
This time last year, drilling in ANWR no longer seemed like a major issue to many.
That changed in January with the inauguration of Donald Trump, who promised during his presidential campaign to pull back restrictions on the oil and gas industry and encourage exploration. In April, President Trump signed an executive order to expand offshore drilling, including in the Arctic, and open up protected federal land. He’s pledged that America will achieve “energy dominance.” And his administration has identified ANWR as a top priority in the hunt for new sources of U.S. oil.
So the 40-year fight is back on.
We bounce, landing on the short runway in Kaktovik, a dot on Alaska’s Arctic coast and the only village located in ANWR. Residents in pickup trucks or four-wheelers wait to unload supplies, or collect relatives coming home from downstate. It’s June and, offshore, tumbled ice is visible in water black as coal. To the south, snow-topped mountains sit mirage-like against the gray sky, across grassland that looks spongy and brown. This is what ground zero looks like.
Over the years, tens of millions of dollars have been spent on the battle for ANWR—for lawyers, lobbyists, fact-finding missions, public meetings, and ads highlighting the refuge’s isolated valleys and remote rivers. ANWR’s 19.3 million acres make it four times the size of Massachusetts—mostly protected wilderness, blocked from development. But the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain, known as the “1002 area,” where Kaktovik is situated, can be drilled if Congress okays it.
How much oil is really here? Nobody knows for certain. But allegedly there are four to 12 billion barrels of recoverable oil, “the mean being 10.3 billion, a very sensible estimate,” says Mark Myers, the former director of the U.S. Geological Survey under President George W. Bush, which made the estimate. Myers is one of a handful of people who’ve ever seen the results of the lone exploratory well drilled in ANWR—a joint project by BP and Chevron back in the mid-’80s. The report may be the most closely held secret in Alaska. There’s no shortage of rumors about what it shows, though. Back in Anchorage, people trade tales of a massive field that could provide a windfall in new oil royalties.
Alaska could use the money. Listen to Alaskans, and you can feel their desperation—in their homes, offices, from commuters passing Anchorage’s rooftop ConocoPhillips sign, in radio reports on the $3 billion state deficit. Oil helped build the state. The oil industry employs a third of its workers. And the Alaska Permanent Fund, created with oil royalties, pays each resident an annual dividend—just over $1,000 last year. Alaska once supplied 20% of U.S. oil, but now it’s output is dwindling. From a high of more than 2 million barrels per day in 1988, Alaska’s daily production has fallen below 500,000 barrels. “We’re basically hanging on, waiting for new supply,” says Thomas Barrett, president of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which operates the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.
In the spring, Alaska’s two Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, introduced new legislation to open up ANWR. To Murkowski, the state’s senior senator and the chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the effort to unlock ANWR for oil exploration is the continuation of a “multigenerational fight,” as she calls it, that started with her father, Frank Murkowski, who once held the same senate seat she now holds. She remembers writing a research paper on the refuge in college, in the 1970s, when her father was pushing to open it. Murkowski also recalls her astounded son, then a seventh grader, asking on the day of a “big” 2005 refuge vote in Congress, “Mom, you haven’t opened ANWR yet? I’ve been hearing about it my whole life!” She lost that vote.
With Trump in power and Congress under Republican control, Murkowski feels that 2018 will be the best chance for success that the pro-ANWR-drilling movement has had in 25 years. But one wrinkle is that Murkowski herself has recently clashed publicly with President Trump. In July, Murkowski defied Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and cast a key vote against the Obamacare repeal bill. Trump immediately went after her on Twitter, writing that she “really let the Republicans, and our country, down yesterday.” Adding, “Too bad!”
To finally win on ANWR, Murkowski will now have to not only smooth things over with the President but also overcome an organized, determined resistance by the environmental community. In the native communities around the refuge, not all of the citizens that Murkowski represents are rooting for her to succeed.
No one under the age of 45 in Kaktovik has memory of any time when outsiders were not battling over the refuge’s 1002 area. That’s the part of ANWR which might be opened—it’s also their primary food supply as both a hunting ground and the basis of a proud Iñupiat subsistence culture. Buy food? A pound of meat in Kaktovik’s store costs $27. A loaf of white bread is $6. Protecting wildlife here is daily survival, many people say.
But the flip side, which has all eight villages of Alaska’s North Slope seesawing back and forth in perpetual angst about drilling, is that oil tax revenue pays for borough schools, old-folks homes, streetlights, plumbing, and even the lawyers who have helped stop—over the years—federal or corporate efforts to halt whale hunting or to allow offshore drilling along whale migration routes. The idea of offshore drilling can be terrifying here. Onshore is more acceptable to Iñupiats.
Elders in North Slope villages grew up burning whale blubber for heat, they tell me, chopping ice for drinking water. That changed after oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay in 1968, and the Iñupiats created the North Slope Borough as an entity to tax big oil. If the oil dries up here, so do basic amenities.
The debate takes place at dinner tables, community meetings, and on the Internet. Fight it? Or pray for it? Oil worsens climate change vs. oil creates jobs.
I’m warned to watch out for polar bears—two were spotted yesterday in Kaktovik—as I walk over to meet Mayor Nora Jane Burns. The village is a collection of one-story homes set on pilings to keep them from melting into permafrost. Front yards are testimonials to people who value outdoors; filled with snowmobiles, drying caribou or bear skins, boats for whale hunting. The new school—paid for by oil taxes—looks impressive.
Mayor Burns, 59, is a gray-haired, whale-hunting crew member whose family, she says, gets half their diet from the wild. At one time she supported drilling. But after watching extraction around the nearby village of Nuiqsut, she changed her mind. “Nuiqsut has been highly impacted,” she says. “Their hunting has changed. They must go extra miles to harvest animals. They suffer more respiratory disease. If our ecosystem is destroyed, what will we eat? Oil?”
A five-minute walk brings me to a smaller wooden building where Eddie Rexford, 59, also a hunter, is angry for the opposite reason and tends to represent the viewpoint of many Iñupiats. He pokes maps on his wall delineating land inside ANWR. Rexford is vice president of the “Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation,” established by the Alaska Native Claims Act of 1971, in which the U.S. government—rather than creating reservations for natives—formed tribal corporations, and gave them land. Tribal members are stockholders and get dividends annually. The Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation owns 92,000 acres of surface land in ANWR, so if oil is found there, members will share royalties with a larger native company—the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC)—which owns subsurface rights. Rube Goldberg seems to have designed federal land policies in Alaska.
ASRC has even sold an oil lease to Chevron and BP on tribal land—but under federal law, no drilling can happen unless the entire 1002 area is opened. Which angers Rexford.
We spend a few minutes discussing well-documented injustices perpetrated on North Slope natives since the Russians sold them to the U.S. as part of Alaska in 1867. Whaler-brought flu wiped out whole villages in the 1800s. In the 1950s scientist Edward Teller arrived in Alaska with a plan to create a deepwater harbor by exploding atomic bombs near the Iñupiat village of Point Hope. Alaska politicians liked that idea. Residents fought it off.
Now, Rexford fumes, the U.S. government won’t allow the Iñupiats to drill on their own land. “First they give us the land, and then they tell us you can do nothing with it. Our land is held hostage. It’s another injustice.”
A refuge is not like a national park, which has paved roads and uniformed rangers and lodging and groomed trails. You can’t hunt in a national park. You can in a refuge. There are souvenir stands in a national park. Forget the moose logo T-shirts in ANWR.
That’s because America’s refuges are dedicated to “wildlife conservation over human use,” says Greg Siekaniec, Alaska Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages ANWR. Siekaniec opposes drilling in the refuge. The ecosystem comes first, he asserts. Then people. And how many people actually come to ANWR? Between 1980 and 2011, roughly 1,000 visitors hiked or rafted there annually, says Fish and Wildlife’s Jennifer Reed, ANWR’s public use manager. “Plus maybe 500 more we don’t know about, since you don’t have to sign in. Recently we’re seeing an extra 1,500 people a year in Kaktovik to see polar bears. The bears are coming ashore in greater numbers as sea ice melts.”
Only a handful of outsiders had ever visited or even heard of the area in 1960, when President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration established an Arctic Wildlife range “to preserve unique wildlife, wilderness, and recreational values.” Under President Jimmy Carter, Congress enlarged the area, changed the name to ANWR, and postponed the decision on whether or not to drill for oil in the 1002 area.
There have been efforts to open up ANWR to the oil industry pretty much ever since. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan’s Interior Department recommended that the coastal plain be opened to drilling, and in 1989 a Senate committee approved a plan—just before the Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, spilling 10 million gallons of crude oil and ending any chance of passage that year. In 1990, as Kuwaiti oilfields burned during an Iraqi invasion, global oil prices skyrocketed, and Frank Murkowski proposed an amendment to the defense appropriations bill to open the refuge. He lost. In the mid-1990s, with the Republicans in control of Congress, both houses passed a budget including a provision to open up ANWR. President Bill Clinton vetoed that part.
Next round: President George W. Bush included the opening of ANWR as part of his energy plan, but it was opposed by Democrats and by some Republicans, such as Sen. John McCain. “If they found oil in the Grand Canyon, I don’t think I’d drill in the Grand Canyon,” McCain said at the time.
President Obama tried to lock up the coastal plain, making it protected wilderness, and failed.
Last November, after Trump’s surprise victory, “we thought, ‘Here we go again,’ ” says Kristen Miller, interim executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League in Washington. Strategy sessions on both sides started within hours of the election. .
Senate Bill 49—on the table now—would limit ANWR’s development to only 2,000 acres, or “the size of Dulles airport,” Senator Sullivan tells me. That would include airports, roads, warehouses, and even pilings on which a pipeline might be built. Add in tribal land that could also be drilled if ANWR opens, and 94,000 acres in all of the 19.3 million could be opened to development, and hundreds of thousands of acres could be leased for exploratory drilling. Legally, exploration and extraction are different things.
After Murkowski’s ‘no’ vote on the Obamacare repeal, Trump reportedly directed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to call Murkowski and Sullivan and express his displeasure. The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General subsequently opened an investigation into whether or not Zinke had threatened the senators with reprisals—and then closed it when the Senators declined to participate. Murkowski and Zinke have both downplayed the disagreement. As of now, the fences appear to be mended enough for Trump and the Alaskan contingent to work on pushing through ANWR legislation.
The Senate bill sidesteps a need for a new environmental impact statement by recognizing one made years ago as valid. And by making the effort part of the budgetary process—as it appears they intend to do—the Republicans may greatly increase the odds of its passage. If the ANWR provision is attached to a budget reconciliation bill, it would require just 51 votes to pass in the Senate, or 50 votes with Vice President Pence voting to break a tie.
But don’t expect ANWR’s defenders to roll over so easily.
Maps shown to Fortune by ANWR exploration proponents outline a teeny area slated for development at the edge of the 1002 area. This, they claim, is the entire extent of the potential footprint.
Maps shown by environmentalists like Peter Van Tuyn, by contrast, portray an enormous spiderweb of interlocking roads, pipes, gravel pits, and warehouses across the entire 1002 area. He doesn’t trust the likes of BP and Chevron, or Alaska’s politicians, to be caretakers of the area’s wildlife.
Van Tuyn and I meet in his Anchorage office, beneath photos of bears and moose. He’s an affable, passionate ex–New Yorker and hiker, who received a “hero of the Arctic” award from the Alaska Wilderness League a few years back. His clients have included the Gwich’in steering committee—an Alaska/Canada Athabaskin native group opposed to opening ANWR—as well as the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society.
“There may be endangered species concerns,” Van Tuyn says, anticipating legal challenges to opening the refuge. “There may be marine-mammal protection concerns. Polar bears are marine mammals, and they den on land. A lot of issues come into play. The bill claims to be environmentally sound. It’s blatantly not.”
Van Tuyn adds, “The 2,000-acre thing is the most disingenuous thing ever in Congress.”
Exxon’s remote Point Thomson oil and gas facility sits on the coastline of the Arctic’s Beaufort Sea, 60 miles from ANWR. On a June day it is 26 degrees, the coldest spot in the U.S., according to the TV news. Point Thomson sends up to 10,000 barrels per day of ultralight oil into the Alaska pipeline, and it is here that ANWR oil would probably flow. “You can almost throw a snowball from ANWR to Point Thomson,” Senator Sullivan tells me. Connecting the two places, he adds, is a no-brainer way to limit development.
I’ve come here in search of, well, nothing.
Nothing is key, because pro-development people argue that this place is a good example of “small-footprint” development; what you’d see if ANWR opened. Nothing like Prudhoe Bay, the massive facility run by BP, Exxon, and Conoco.
Senator Murkowski is among those arguing that drilling now will have a minimal environmental impact. “The effect is imperceptible on the surface,” she says. “The caribou don’t know it’s there. People flying over don’t know it’s there. The technology has advanced so much, but people can’t let go of their old images.”
Prudhoe Bay is the epitome of that image. It’s basically a large-scale industrial park on tundra, a massive complex of gravel mounds—“pads”—on which rest pumps, warehouses, housing, and roads. Experts estimate that if current technology had existed when it was built, the facility would move the same amount of oil at 20% to 50% of its size.
Point Thomson, by contrast, is smaller and less built-up. The building doors open into polar bear cages—steel enclosures to protect workers in case a bear is outside. Staffers wear protective eye gear when driving, since flying rocks routinely break windows. Nearby I spot a few caribou on the tundra, ducks, even a fox.
Exxon uses directional drilling at Point Thomson, meaning that lines extend outward from a single well, enabling the tapping of hydrocarbons miles away, and cutting down on the number of wells formerly needed to tap a field.
I stand before a two-story, cube-shaped building inside of which sits a pipe going down 13,000 feet. Then it makes a turn and continues out for two more miles, and sucks hydrocarbons. The Exxon guys tell me they’ve had marksmen shoot bullets at pipeline-thick steel to test Iñupiat fears that hunters might accidentally puncture it. They boast about caribou monitoring by satellite and their bear radar.
Scanning the horizon, all I see is tundra and open water for miles. There’s plenty of nothing.
The arctic is melting as the earth heats up. It was warmer from 2011 to 2015 than at any time since 1900, when record taking with instruments began. In Eskimo villages, elders have stopped teaching young men to hunt because they fear that the ice is changing so fast that old lessons won’t apply. In Norway this May, I visited Ny Alesund, the northernmost permanent research settlement on earth, where the Austre Broggerbreen glacier lost six feet of depth in 2016. In Svalbard, the global seed vault, constructed in deep permafrost to preserve samples of world crops, was closed for repair because permafrost around it is melting. “This was not anticipated,” staffers told me.
In Alaska, ice melt has opened the sea-lanes off Kaktovik. Cruise ships now pass on their way in or out of the once iced-over Northwest Passage. The open-water season has increased by one to three months since the 1970s, the Arctic Council recently announced. Russia is building Arctic military bases and will begin shipping natural gas to Asia this fall through the Bering Strait, “waving at us as they go by,” says Mead Treadwell, Alaska’s former Lt. Governor and the former head of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, venting his frustration. The message: Russia is assuming prominence in the region while in the U.S. Arctic policy—over building icebreakers or not, over whether to sign international treaties governing sea bottom, over whether to drill for oil or gas—gets bogged down in arguments in gridlock.
The effects of the changing climate are apparent inland as well.
It’s near midnight—the dawn of a new day in the Arctic—as Charlie Swaney hits the accelerator on the camouflage-patterned Honda runabout and we bounce up a steep incline to his caribou hunting camp.
Arctic Village, Swaney’s home, is a Gwich’in Native American settlement of roughly 200 in the Brooks Range foothills, 146 miles south of Kaktovik, near the southern end of ANWR. The porcupine caribou herd provides almost 80% of the diet of the Gwich’in, after passing each year during the longest migration of any animal on earth—2,700 miles in a loop between Northern Canada and Alaska. The herd of 180,000 labors over mountains and across ice-covered streams, swims rushing rivers, and moves relentlessly almost 20 hours a day, as they have for 10,000 years. The range is huge, but calving occurs in a small part of it—specifically, in the 1002 area, where cool ocean breezes protect them from the principal cause of calf mortality: mosquitoes. The fear is that development will push them into more dangerous spots.
The caribou have no idea that they constitute a political football. But they’re part of the reason that Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the Energy Committee, opposes developing the area. “ANWR is one of the most unique places on earth. People travel the world to see intact ecosystems like this,” says Cantwell. “We don’t need the oil.”
Swaney, 60, is a lanky, muscled man with a quiet assertiveness and a habit of repeating the last couple of words of a thought. He moved here 30 years ago and married into the community. Like other residences in Arctic Village, his lacks running water. The toilet is a bucket. Drinking water is filtered from the river. Heat comes from a wood-burning oil-drum stove.
But he’s not interested in the promise of oil money. “Fifty years from now the oil will be gone, even if they find it. If they drill ANWR, caribou will be gone too,” he tells me.
Arctic Village is one of eight Gwich’in communities along the caribou route. Unlike North Slope Iñupiats, the Gwich’in rejected native corporations, instead forming the Gwich’in Steering Committee to fight ANWR development. They regard the caribou calving ground as holy, barred from visitation.
“People up north chose money over subsistence,” Swaney says, shaking his head. “Bad idea. You lose power up north and you will freeze to death. If we lost electricity, we’d still have our woodstoves to keep us warm.”
From our perch at his camp, Swaney scans the valley below and points out ways that the climate is changing things here. The spruce forest used to be more expansive. New willow trees provide cover for more moose. He points out oval patches on the grass below that are dried up lakes, due to permafrost melt. Animals that depended on these lakes are watching their drinking water dry up, he says.
And what if oil development adds more stress on the caribou? What if oil wells cause the herd to calve elsewhere, or to change their migration route so they no longer pass close to the village?
It could be the last straw, he frets. Which causes me to remember a talk with scientist Jason Caikoski.
Caikoski, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist, has monitored Alaska caribou for years. When I asked him whether the Prudhoe Bay development affected the “Central” caribou herd there, he explained that the herd, “grew from relatively few to an all-time high, and then declined. We don’t know what effect the oilfield had on that.”
When it comes to predictions about the porcupine herd, “The bottom line is, we don’t know the scale of footprint,” Caikoski said. Without more information on the development: “Impact unknown.”
Down in Arctic Village I sit with Sarah James in her small home. James and President Bill Clinton shake hands in a photo, near a “No whining” bumper sticker stuck to the fridge. James, 74, has traveled to Europe and the Earth Summit as an ambassador of the Gwich’in. “If you drill for oil here, you will be drilling into the heart of our people,” she says.
James was given a lifetime job by Gwich’in elders back in 1978, at a tribal convocation, she says. “The leaders gave four of us authorization to go out and educate the world. They said, ‘This fight is going to be huge. We’ll need help.’ They said, ‘You are going to do this for the rest of your life.’ ” In the late 1980s, she lived in D.C. for a year, working with the Alaska Wilderness League and “eating a lot of Subway sandwiches.”
With President Trump in the White House, says James, “everyone asks me what is going to happen to the Gwich’in people if they develop the refuge. I still have hope. But I don’t know the answer.”
How to find balance? Where’s the line between jobs and nature, natural heritage and new capital, energy and human culture? How much oil—even if you believe in development—is enough?
Some perspective comes from Richard Glenn, vice president of lands for the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and a drilling proponent. He’s a renaissance guy—piano player, scientist, whale hunter. It’s quite possible, Glenn suggests with a bemused smile, that the fight over ANWR will go on for another 40 years. Indeed, Alaskan cynics have been known to say that the principal industry associated with ANWR is not oil but the lobbyists and fundraisers on either side.
It’s also possible, he reminds me, that it’ll turn out in the end that there’s no oil in ANWR, if it ever does open up. It wouldn’t be the first time an expected find turned dry. “We’re like two people arguing over the contents of a closet,” says Glenn. But neither knows exactly what the prize really is.
Bob Reiss is the author of The Eskimo and the Oil Man and was the Anchorage Museum writer in residence in June 2017.
A version of this article appears in the Sept. 15, 2017 issue of Fortune.