For as long as I can remember, there has been a lot of talk about increasing oil production in Alaska, including drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
Just as the debate rages on down south, Alaskans themselves are divided on the issue, although it’s not necessarily a 50/50 split (but we’ll get into that later).
Let’s take a look at the arguments on both sides from an Alaskan perspective, then we’ll discuss the percentages in favor and opposed.
The Case For No More Drilling
Almost all arguments used by Alaskans who oppose increased oil drilling and natural gas exploration are centered around protecting the environment.
A vast majority of them accept the drilling that currently takes place but would be opposed to any potential expansion.
The Gwich’in Native Alaskans are strongly opposed to drilling in ANWR, as they see it as a desecration of their sacred lands.
The potential impacts on the environment include caribou, migratory birds, and other species who live in ANWR whose habitats could be endangered if drilling were allowed.
In Defense of Drilling
There are several main arguments used by proponents of increased drilling throughout the state.
First, it benefits most of us as Alaskans directly. In exchange for selling the oil and natural gas rights, every eligible Alaskan receives a yearly check (called the Permanent Fund Dividend) that represents our share of the profits.
Increased oil production would generate more money for each citizen, which “trickles up” and allows people to spend at least part of their money locally.
This is especially important as many small businesses throughout the state are suffering due to Amazon’s popularity and low prices.
They also argue that the Native Alaskans who live the closest to ANWR, the Iñupiat, are very much in favor of drilling. The Gwich’in, who have been vocally opposed for years, live nearly 200 miles away.
There have been reports of caribou near the existing Alyeska Pipeline resting against it for warmth, suggesting that they would not be affected by an additional pipeline or drilling.
Proponents also suggest that Russia’s military action in Ukraine is further evidence that increased drilling in Alaska is essential, as every barrel of Alaskan oil sold is potentially one less sale for President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin.
Lastly, they believe that oil can be drilled safely and with minimal environmental impact. Modern drilling techniques allow the extraction of oil from multiple directions from just one platform.
How Many People Support Each Side?
A Zogby poll of Americans from all 50 states conducted in 2019 and cited by a Yale University study that I found on Google says that nearly 67% of nationwide voters surveyed were opposed to drilling in ANWR.
However, a 2011 study that exclusively interviewed Alaska residents showed that 78% of those polled were in favor of increased drilling.
I don’t have the particulars of the poll in front of me, but based on my knowledge of Alaskan politics, I can tell you that the vast majority of Republicans are in favor of additional drilling, but Democrats are split.
Commitment to the environment, wanting to listen to Native voices (the Gwich’in), and a general hatred of oil companies are the general motivating factors, in addition to the ones discussed above.
However, some Democrats support it for various reasons, sometimes because they know people who work in the oil fields up on the North Slope and changed their minds after conversations with those oil-working friends.
Summary and Final Notes
I’ve done my best to present the arguments as neutrally as possible, although it’s probably pretty clear at this point that I’m part of the majority who want to see expanded drilling and natural gas exploration up here.
That 78% figure is probably a little low at this point, too, because other than generic disgust towards the oil companies, I have not personally witnessed or been part of an argument on this topic since I was in college about 15 years ago.
I hate to do my impression of Columbo here, but…just one more thing. Maybe it’s something that a lot of people outside of Alaska might not know.
As the law currently stands, the Iñupiat people control the land where the proposed ANWR drilling would take place.
Therefore, they would be the only group of Alaska Natives to receive any of the profits from any potential oil drilling on their land.
Various other groups of Alaska Natives have (unsuccessfully) lobbied Congress to require that all revenues be divided equally among all of the state’s Native corporations.
It seems terribly unfair that the debate has been framed as “greedy oil companies vs the environment,” when the reality of the situation is a lot more nuanced.
Most Alaskans feel that if people down south understood the situation as we do, they would be in favor of increased drilling and oil exploration…or they might cynically say that we just want the money.