How was the current deal brokered? A key role was played by Alaska's neo-liberal governor, Tony Knowles. A bizarre hybrid of Clinton and oilman Lloyd Bentsen, Knowles is known to some Alaskans as "the governor of Arco." He is the first Democrat to run the state in many years, and his campaign received more than $30,000 from Arco, the largest producer on the North Slope. In recognition of this munificence, Knowles has pushed the oil industry's agenda in his frequent meetings with the Clinton gang.

"Knowles told Clinton and Al Gore that if they wouldn't allow the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to be leased to the oil companies, then they must open the National Petroleum Reserve."
So says Sylvia Ward of the North Alaska Environmental Center in Fairbanks. The Clinton administration had vowed to veto any measures to open the 17-million acre Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, but to the disappointment of Alaskan environmentalists, it has refused to back efforts to protect the coastal plain as wilderness.

Knowles saw the opening and exploited it. For the governor and the oil companies, accelerated drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve will be a kind of testing ground for the more lucrative fields that lie under ANWR. "We'll show them that we can do it right," Knowles said.

On Feb. 7, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt announced that he was ordering the preparation of an environmental impact statement on the leasing of the Reserve. Babbitt went further, saying that "oil leasing is absolutely the goal of the environmental studies." This statement is indicative of the utter lawlessness of the crowd now running the country. As the National Environmental Policy Act stipulates, environmental review comes first, and a decision second. Babbitt is brazenly indicating that the preparers of the EIS have been told in no uncertain terms where their duties lie.

Babbitt rationalizes this effrontery by gesturing toward a new kind of consensual politics that does not require the pesky corsets of legal obligation: "We'd like to break away from the adversarial style and see if we can put together some new way of doing business with the oil industry. I think we've got lots of possibilities."

As for environmental concerns, Babbitt has said, Leave it to Bruce. He plans to go to Alaska this summer and hike over the 23-million-acre reserve. "I want to get out on the ground and I want to look at every square inch of the National Petroleum Reserve. My plans now are to fly to Anchorage, change planes for Barrow, and then I want to disappear into the NPR for as much time as I need, to understand every geological structure, every lake, every wildlife issue so that I will be prepared to be a meaningful participant in this process."

Maybe in the course of his extended peregrinations Babbitt will come across the bones of Hale Boggs, the congressman--father of lobbying powerhouse Tommy Boggs (who represents Alyeska, the company that runs the Alaska pipeline) and pundit Cokie Roberts--who disappeared on an ill-fated flight over Alaska many years ago and whose body was never found.

And what kind of place is the National Petroleum Reserve? Few people have crossed its Arctic expanses. Those who have say it is a remarkable place of caribou, grizzlies, and wolves, bigger and just as ecologically fragile as the more high profile ANWR. This arc of land is crossed by the Colville River, which meanders for 320 miles from its headwaters in the Gates of the Arctic National Park across the Anuktuvuk Plateau to its 20-mile-wide delta at the Beaufort Sea. Indeed, the NPR contains the largest expanse of undeveloped public land in North America.

"Some conservationists might be tempted to trade off the National Petroleum Reserve for a delay in the leasing of the National Wildlife Refuge," warns Sylvia Ward. "But that would be a tragic miscalculation. The oil companies want it all."

Oh yes, and how much oil is in the Petroleum Reserve? Arco knows, because it had done extensive testing in the area and has just struck a 300-million-barrel oil field on its western border, near the Eskimo village of Nuigsut. But Arco says that to divulge what it knows about the oil in this public property would be to reveal proprietary information.

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