President Carter's recommendation to set aside 92 million acres in Alaska as protected wilderness was made over the objections of Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger, whose staff says the suggested area may contain up to 15 billion barrels of oil.
Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus prepared Carter's recommendation to Congress, and won his first important skirmish with the new Energy Department in a classic environment-versus-development battle.
"It went to the President because it had to be resolved; he was clearly aware where each agency stood," said one White House aide. Carter made his decision Sept. 14, the day before he sent his proposal to Capitol Hill to dedicate one-fourth of Alaska to federal wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, scenic river systems and national parks.
Pro-environment forces in the White House and the Interior Department clearly regard the outcome of the President's eleventh-hour decision in Andrus's favor as a triumph, as well as a further test of Carter's commitment to the environment.
"This is the first time Andrus has gone to the mat with Schelsinger and won," said one.
The focus of the battle was Andrus's recommendation to add the 885-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the nation'd wilderness system. A wilderness designation would post "no trespassing" signs on the range, ruling out future oil or mineral development. The range is on Alaska's North Slope, west of the Prudhoe Bay oil field and next to the Arctic Ocean.
During the debate Schlesinger's staff argued that the government should allow exploratory drilling in the refuge, at least to determine whether there are oil or gas reserves that could be economically tapped before banning future development.
Repeatedly the discussion returned to the Marsh Creek anticline, a geological structure that Interior's U.S. Geological Survey, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and major oil companies have been eyeing for years.
As recently as 1972 the State of Alaska published estimates that the anticline could contain up to 20 billion barrels of oil and 11 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. One member of the USGS Denver office said, "It is one of the most promising areas (for oil exploration ) in America, and could be one of the biggest onshore structures in America, and could be one of the biggest onshore structures in America." During the debate Interior experts used possible oil reserve estimates ranging from 6 billion to 16 billion barrels.
Alaska's massive Prudhoe Bay field, discovered in the late sixties, has about 15 billion barrels in proven reserves.
"Everybody has been licking their lips over those structures for years," said one oil company executive.
Most of the major oil companies, including Shell, have been quietly eyeing the wildlife refuge as a priority exploration area because of s find large enough to justify the high cost of transporting oil from Alaska to the lower 48 states.
Testifying before the House Interior Committee the day he announced Carters decision, Andrus said, "There are many people in and out of the administration who felt it; Arctic Wildlife Refuge) should be open to oil and gas. We don't.
"If in fact the area does have high oil and gas potential, then we are saying to you, let it be the last place that America develops if we need it."
One of Andrus' top aides, Cynthia Wilson, said, "We were very much aware it would be viewed as a head-on conflict between energy and the environment," stressing that the refuge contains irreplaceable habitat for a diverse array of wildlife, including the 120,000 Procupine caribou herd.
There is still some grousing on th energy side of the debate. "Andrus got to Carter, and Schlesinger didn't get a fair hearing," remarked one staffer.
But another energy policy-maker was more sanguine. "We were out-manuevered and failed to get our ducks in a row to fight," he said.