For the past thirty years Alaska has been a primary source of domestic oil. Alaska's Prudhoe Bay and miles of coastline are marked by evidence of oil exploration and production, including oil derricks, gravel roads, and 850 miles of pipe that makes up the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. This drilling has already caused significant environmental destruction in the area; the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, considered one of the worst environmental disasters in history, dumped 11 million gallons of oil into the ocean. As a result of rising gas prices and foreign oil issues in the Middle East, there has been new interest in expanding the drilling in Alaska, specifically to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), part of the National Park System. Over the past twenty years, the question of whether or to open the ANWR to oil exploration has become a social problem due to the negative eco-impacts, and has brought increased attention to the American political agenda.
Covering over nineteen million acres in the northeast corner of Alaska, the ANWR is the largest reserve in the National Wildlife Refuge. Because of its size, remote location, and the absence of any roads or campsites, it is also one of the wildest protected ecosystems in the U.S. In 1980, this area was protected under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, however in order for conservationists to get the act passed they were forced to leave one area open to future oil exploration. This 1.5 million acre section of coastal plains is known as the 1002 Area, and is the cause of the debate over whether or not to drill for oil. This is due to the fact that it is rich in fossil fuels, but also thought of as the most critical area in the entire ecosystem. The coastal plains are a habitat for over 160 different species of birds, polar bears, a herd of Porcupine caribou, and the Gwich"in people, one of the world's few remaining subsistence cultures.