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Thursday, May 11, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

ANWR exploration: energy for the West Coast

Special to The Times

For the past 150 years, Alaska has provided a generous, even astonishing, storehouse of natural resources that have supported jobs, families and the economies of the West Coast. This has been true throughout the Pacific Northwest, especially in the Seattle-Tacoma area.

Alaska has provided every resource imaginable, from fur and fish to gold and timber. Beginning in 1977, Alaska's North Slope, including the oil fields we commonly know as Prudhoe Bay, has provided almost countless tanker-loads of crude oil to be refined into fuels for West Coast motorists, commercial vehicles, airlines and home heating.

At the height of production in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Alaska produced as many as 2 million barrels of crude oil a day. While some was and is refined for in-state use in Alaska, the bulk of the North Slope crude produced at that time provided 55 percent of all the oil consumed on the West Coast.

Because oil from Alaska provided such a high percentage of what was consumed on the West Coast, that area of our nation was largely protected from the impacts of foreign embargoes or supply disruptions. Only 2.8 percent of its oil came from a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Indonesia.

Of course, that was not always the case. In the early 1970s, when auth-orization of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) was being debated in Congress and the Arab oil embargo gripped the country, West Coast drivers were sharing the pain at the pumps — when gas was available.

Between 1977 and 1991, Alaska North Slope oil production peaked and has declined to its present level of about 900,000 barrels per day. This represents approximately one-third of West Coast oil needs.

With the loss of Alaska production, the West Coast is now dependent upon OPEC and other foreign sources for nearly 50 percent of its needs. Approximately 29 million barrels of oil arrive at West Coast ports each month in foreign-flagged tankers from overseas, increasing the threat to West Coast beaches, marine mammals and shorebirds.

Alaska oil also continues to be delivered to the West Coast, but it is fair to say that its ocean passage is much safer. It is carried in double-hull tankers subject to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, state-of-the-art vessels that are built, crewed and inspected by Americans.

We are taking a number of extraordinary steps to increase our North Slope production, always mindful of our obligation to maintain the highest standards of environmental integrity.

We are revising our oil-tax regime to provide greater incentives to large and small oil companies to invest in exploration and development in Alaska. We are in the final stages of negotiating a contract with the major North Slope producer companies, Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips and BP Alaska, to enable a pipeline to be built to transport the hundreds of trillions of cubic feet of North Slope natural gas to market.

The gas-line project will have the added benefit of extending the life of the TAPS oil pipeline for an additional 20 years, as new discoveries of oil throughout the vast North Slope region are made and developed along with additional discoveries of gas.

One of the most significant new areas with a high potential for oil and gas discoveries and production is in the narrow coastal plain along the border of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR. This small area of ANWR was purposely kept out of the refuge's wilderness by Congress, specifically so it could be explored for oil and gas.

Based on federal government estimates, we believe there is sufficient oil at ANWR to provide an additional million barrels per day to the TAPS pipeline — and to the West Coast — for up to 30 years.

It is clearly in the best interest of the nation, and particularly for the energy security of the West Coast, that ANWR be opened to exploration and development as Congress intended.

Frank H. Murkowski is the governor of Alaska. Born in Seattle and raised in Ketchikan, he graduated from Seattle University with a degree in economics. A Republican, he represented Alaska in the U.S. Senate for 22 years before his election as governor in 2002.

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