THE ALASKAN FRONT

In early August this year the remote Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska was gripped with unseasonably mild weather: 20 degree afternoons, ravenous mosquitoes past prime insect season and dry tundra in the typically swampy lowlands of the coastal plain. These may be early signs of global warming, which is ironic, because the Arctic refuge is the 19 million-acre nature preserve that the Bush administration has targeted as the optimum spot to drill for oil and natural gas, the very fossil fuels whose use drives climate warming in the first place. "The debate over new oil exploration gets even more confusing when we have to factor in climate change," says University of Alaska, Fairbanks, biologist David Klein.

Despite concerns over global warming, recent events have intensified pressure to develop new oil and natural-gas resources in Alaska. Instability in the Middle East, Venezuela and Russia have fueled calls in the United States for oil independence, while rising oil prices make new exploration and development more profitable. Despite setbacks for his energy proposals in Congress, President George W. Bush touts developing Alaska as a top priority for a second term. Environmentalists say the potential of Arctic Alaska is too small to justify the threat drilling poses to a unique wilderness, where migratory caribou roam and arctic terns nest for the summer. But Vice President Dick Cheney told campaign audiences recently that "we are at the mercy of international oil prices" because "we've taken large chunks of the country and put it off limits to any kind of exploration or development."

In the past, oil interests have won the battle of energy versus the environment at times when oil prices and geopolitical tensions were high. Congress authorized the 1,287km, $8 billion Alaska oil pipeline in the early 1970s, when the OPEC embargo sent prices skyward. Now analysts estimate that a total of 3 billion barrels could be profitably produced from the Arctic refuge at $20 a barrel--and far more at recent highs of more than $49 a barrel. "With high oil prices and the pressure on oil companies to grow, some of the projects that used to be looked at only marginally are now becoming viable," says Jay Saunders, an energy analyst at Deutsche Bank. In the past few months various oil companies and the state of Alaska have proposed opening new wells off the coast of ANWR and in the National Petroleum Reserve to the west of Prudhoe Bay, and have unveiled detailed plans to build a natural-gas pipeline from Prudhoe Bay east to Canada and south to Valdez, Alaska.

Environmentalists argue that increased oil exploration in the Arctic does not curb prices or lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil. They also say that the rapidly changing Arctic climate is increasingly vulnerable to drilling. Melting permafrost underneath the soil is currently altering the rich vegetation that sustain caribou; the shorter winters are hampering the construction of ice roads and other tools of environmentally sensitive oil exploration. "The oil industry does not have the methodologies and techniques worked out for a rapidly changing environment," warns biologist Klein. Still, for as long U.S. energy security appears threatened, the environmentalist stand will be vulnerable, too.