It is described as the last great American wilderness and has been the battle ground between the US' most powerful oil interests and environmentalists for more than two decades. But last week the giants of the energy industry were celebrating a significant victory and looking forward to the chance to move into one of the most lucrative oil fields left in the US, following the Senate's narrow 51 to 49 decision to open up the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska
On the day that oil hit a record high of US$56.46 a barrel, the soaring price of oil and US energy insecurity were blamed for the decision. But Americans were divided on whether the decision made economic or ecological sense.
US President George W. Bush said that exploiting oil in the Alaskan wilderness was good for security and the national economy.
"This is a way to get some additional reserves here at home on the books. In terms of world supply ... demand is outracing supply, and supplies are getting tight. This project will make America less dependent on foreign sources of energy, eventually by up to a million barrels of oil a day," he said.
But for the Democrats and ecologists, who have fought the oil lobby to keep the arctic wilderness as a symbol of pristine America almost since it was first protected in 1960 by president Dwight Eisenhower, it was an irreversible tragedy.
"Is it worth forever losing a national treasure, one of our last great wild places, for a six-month supply of oil 10 years from now?" asked Senator Joe Lieberman, one of the refuge's staunchest defenders.
The oil is expected to be found on the northern Alaskan coastal plain, but drilling is not expected to start until 2007 at the earliest, taking 10 years to come fully on stream. The US Geological Survey estimates there could be anywhere between 5.6 billion barrels and 16 billion barrels of recoverable oil there, with the most likely amount being 10.4 billion barrels.
The US government expects US$2.5 billion in revenue from oil leases and taxes over the next 10 years, with production peaking at one million barrels a day by 2025.
But opponents said that the decision would not solve US energy problems. A 10 billion barrel find, said Charles Clusen, Alaska project director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, would represent only about six months' supply of oil for the energy-voracious US economy which currently uses 20 million barrels a day. The oilfield is expected to be roughly the same size as those of Norway or Algeria.
"It makes no sense to industrialize the few pristine wildlife areas left," Clusen said. "The United States has only 3 percent of the world's proven oil reserves and we use 25 percent of the world's produced oil. Do the math. We could destroy every last wilderness area in the country, but we will never be able to drill our way to oil independence. We have to wean ourselves off oil."
Senator Maria Cantwell, who led the attack against drilling in the refuge, said the US should focus on conservation and on developing alternative and renewable forms of energy instead of depleting the nation's last known onshore oil reserves.
"By simply encouraging proper tyre pressure on cars and trucks, the US could save more oil than the wildlife refuge could produce", she said.
However, Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski argued that the refuge could provide enough fuel to "replace all of our imports from Saudi Arabia for 25 years."