While Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Gore debate whether to permit drilling for oil in an untouched area of the Alaskan tundra, the position of the state’s bankers is clear: They want to drill.

“The value of this land is mind-boggling, and that doesn’t even count gas,” said Marc Langland, president, chairman and chief executive officer of $539 million-asset Northrim Bank in Anchorage. “This is strictly a political issue, not an environmental issue.” Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge “is larger than the total New England states,” noted Daniel H. Cuddy, chairman and president of $1.5 billion-asset First National Bank of Anchorage. “What they want to do is drill some oil on a small portion of the coastal plane, and they have already proven it won’t hurt the wildlife.”

The area in question is 8% of this federally owned, 19-million-acre wildlife refuge, near Alaska’s northern coast along the Canadian border. It is on the North Slope, adjacent to the United States’ most productive oil field, the Prudhoe Bay field.

Mr. Bush is advocating that this 8% be made available for drilling. He notes that the U.S. Energy Department says the area may hold oil reserves exceeding 35% of current proved U.S. reserves.

Mr. Langland said it could prove to be another Prudhoe Bay, which has supplied over two million barrels of oil a day for the past 20 years. Such added production would not only reduce oil prices but would also help the Alaskan economy and bring royalties to the federal and state governments, he pointed out.

But Mr. Gore opposes running the environmental risk for reserves that, if they panned out, would equal only about six months of U.S. oil consumption. He says he wants to protect this “precious national treasure,” which is part of the North Slope’s complex ecosystem and, though frozen nine months out of the year, home to a large population of caribou.

Environmentalists who share this view have blocked drilling on the wildlife refuge. In the past 13 years four major campaigns for a congressional go-ahead have failed.

Alaskan bankers bristle at the six-month argument. “Yes, if you used this for the whole U.S. demand for oil, it may only last six months, but that’s not how it works,” said Mr. Langland during a recent interview in American Banker’s Washington office.

He, Mr. Cuddy, and Chris Knudson, chief financial and chief operating officer of Northrim — who have spent decades in Alaska — point out that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is not much of a tourist attraction.

“It’s a place that very few people have access to, and the bulk of Americans that come to Alaska are going to Denali or go to Glacier National,” Mr. Knudson said.

Mr. Cuddy said that fears of endangering the caribou and other wildlife are unfounded and have been proven wrong in Prudhoe Bay. He said that caribou thrive in that area of the North Slope — that in fact their population has increased, because the land around the pipelines gives them a clear path for walking.

Though Mr. Bush is on the bankers’ side, a Bush victory would not ensure the opening of the arctic refuge, Mr. Langland said. He worries that Democrats and environmentalists would still have enough power to block drilling.

“The Democrats have leveraged off this issue to gain funds, and have used us as a ploy,” Mr. Langland said. “And honestly, we don’t have the political clout to do anything about it.”


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