DESPITE THIS titillating wildlife moment, the North Slope oil patch is a brutal contrast to the wilderness we've left behind. Its 19 fields, 3,900 wells (which pump a million barrels a day), and hundreds of waste pits sprawl across some 8,500 square miles. Waiting to squire us through a small section of this mammoth fuel depot are two top-notch flacks: BritishPetroleum's Ronnie Chappell, who started his PR career with Arco in January 1989 (two months before the Exxon Valdez spill), and Bill Van Dyke, a spinmeister at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
Kennedy has barely hopped aboard the shuttle bus when Van Dyke starts pelting him with statistics on how well the caribou herd around Prudhoe Bay is doing. Chappell and Van Dyke clearly feel that this is an important issue, presumably because environmentalists worry that drilling in the 1002 Area could disrupt the Porcupine herd's calving season. "Hey," Van Dyke exclaims. "There's two caribou right out there! It's kinda my job to point out every single one." He explains that the herd around Prudhoe Bay has increased threefold since drilling began in the 1970s—a boom that, Van Dyke does not mention, occurred largely because oil workers killed off or drove away most of the local predators. "There's another one!" Van Dyke shouts. In the back of the bus, John Blackstone from CBS has momentarily dozed off.
We take a gravel causeway out to a drilling platform called Endicott. While we stare up at a 150-foot derrick, all three million pounds of it, Chappell explains how hard British Petroleum strives to protect the environment by using temporary ice roads and employing sophisticated angular-drilling technologies, which reduce the number of drill pads in a given area. This is all true; but so too is the fact that last February BP was convicted of failing to inform the EPA in a timely manner that one of its contractors had dumped hazardous waste down Endicott's well holes for three straight years. For this offense, Chappell's company was forced to pay $22 million in fines, and will spend five years on probation.
Eventually, we're ushered into Endicott's offices, where talk turns to the question of who actually worries about the Refuge. "It is my understanding that there's only a small core of Americans who care deeply about ANWR," intones Chappell, citing a poll conducted by Arctic Power, an industry group that lobbies for drilling in the 1002 Area. (BP last year contributed $50,000 to Arctic Power, and the organization's board includes a BP official.) "Most of them don't even know about it."
Tossing a chart onto an overhead projector, Van Dyke begins raving about the added cash that will flow into the state if the Refuge is opened up to drilling. This is another key issue. Oil revenues supply up to 85 percent of Alaska's yearly income. Without it, Alaskans would have to pay state taxes like most folks in the Lower 48—a burden so onerous, Van Dyke says, "that it'd force people to move out of the state."
After listening to this spiel, Kennedy says he'd like a chance to respond. His theme: the absurdity of breaking into a wildlife sanctuary to tap a six-month supply of oil. "Wilderness holds Americans together as a people; it defines us as a people," he declares. "If we treat it with contempt and destroy it for a few barrels of oil, what we're really saying is that the only thing that defines us is money. What we should be doing is encouraging people to conserve energy. It'll give us a lot more oil, a lot cheaper, without the environmental problems, rather than just feeding an addiction by destroying something we value."
Chappell offers a tepid smile. "We're not opposed to conservation," he replies. "But the product we make is vital to all Americans." Van Dyke chuckles and asks if we might like to take some lapel pins home with us. It's time to go.
As the shuttle returns to the airport, where a jet is waiting to whisk us to Fairbanks, the tundra is bathed in a luminous silver-and-green glow that only the endless twilight of an Arctic midsummer night can achieve. We pass by immense fleets of machinery and miles of pipeline. After our two nights next to the Aichilik, the scene seems unnatural and depressingly blunt. Chappell leans over my shoulder. "Now remember," he drawls, "we can go into environmentally sensitive areas in a way that doesn't have a negative impact on wildlife. A development out there wouldn't look like this. It'd be dictated by—"
Chappell, it would seem, is about to uncork the secret behind eco-perfect oil exploration, undoubtedly by reinvoking the miracles of ice roads and angular drilling. But he's suddenly thrown off his game. "Hey, Ronnie," Kennedy interrupts. "You guys must get some pretty good views of the northern lights up here, eh? You know, the kinda thing where it looks like somebody's pulled a zipper open across the heavens and the stars are just spilling out on top of you?"
For the first time all day, Chappell's face is animated by a policy-free enthusiasm. "Oh yeah!" he says. "Sometimes they hang so low that it feels like you can actually reach up and grab them right out of the sky." He pauses, gazing at the pipelines next to the bus. "It's truly an amazing thing."
Where Caribou Freeze Their Asses Off
As far as the U.S. goes, it simply doesn't get any more remote than the North Slope of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which boasts one of the greatest wildlife pageants in all of North America, but virtually no roads, huts, or trails within more than 30,000 square miles. To navigate this wilderness, sign on with a guide for a one- to two-week trek or a float down one of the major rivers. Yes, it's expensive. Yes, it's a big time commitment. But it will be one of the best trips you ever take.
WHEN TO GO: The third week in June, when the caribou are calving, the flowers are out, and the mosquitoes haven't yet hatched.
GETTING OUTFITTED: Contact Alaska Discovery (800-586-1911; www.akdiscovery.com), Arctic Wild (888-577-8203; www.arcticwild.com), or Arctic Treks (907-455-6502; www.arctictreksadventures.com). These outfitters offer trips down the Hulahula, Canning, Kongakut, Sheenjek, and Aichilik Rivers, as well as backpacking trips on the coastal plain (each eight- to 19-day journey will cost between $2,000 and $2,990). If you prefer to explore on your own, make arrangements with a bush-plane service—for about $300 an hour. Contact Coyote Air in Cold Foot (800-252-0603; www.flycoyote.com) or Wright Air Service (907-474-0502). —Carol Greenhouse