Northern Exposure


In the opening moments of the documentary, "Oil on Ice," Frank Murkowski, then a United States senator from Alaska, is heard talking to fellow senators about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which he wants the federal government to open up to the oil industry for drilling.

"It's flat, it's unattractive, it's not pristine," he states firmly from the Senate floor.

Gripping a large, solid-white rectangle of cardboard and rotating it from upraised arms for all his colleagues to see, he declares: "This is what it looks like. Don't be misinformed."

Then, the white cardboard image segues into a full screen of white snow – an image from the wildlife refuge located in Alaska – and viewers might conclude that the image confirms the senator's claim. Until ... out of the powder bursts a furry white head, its eyes staring at the viewer, and in a flash an ermine dashes away.

There can be no question about the message that filmmakers Dale Djerassi and Bo Boudart hope viewers take away from their documentary. The ermine – and the thousands of other creatures of the earth, sky and water captured on video – are the filmmakers' response to Sen. Murkowski's warning: "Don't be misinformed."

The sweeping views of slopes and peaks are their refutation of the senator's description, "It's flat." And stunning images of the landscape teeming with wildlife during seasons of snow and of vibrant sun torpedo his claim, "It's unattractive."

"Oil on Ice," which debuted on Memorial Day at the Telluride Mountain Film festival, is an unequivocal statement of the filmmakers' stance on the controversial drilling issue still being fought in Congress: The risks of drilling for oil in the wildlife refuge, widely know as ANWR, are far greater, they insist, than any benefit that could be gained.

To Drill or Not to Drill

The hour-long documentary, narrated by actor Peter Coyote, examines the many issues surrounding the question of whether a 1.5 million-acre portion of the 19.6 million-acre refuge situated in the northeastern corner of Alaska should be drilled.

Those issues include the fate of the indigenous Gwich'in Indians, who subsist on the land and depend on the annual migration to the refuge of the Porcupine caribou – so named because they must cross the Porcupine River on their 1,600-mile journey up from Canada.

Also addressed are the concerns of indigenous people, environmentalists, biologists and many others over the degradation of the fragile environment that would inevitably follow the introduction into the refuge of oil-drilling machinery, large crews of workers, and the building of roadways and other infrastructure to support the drilling operations.

Those concerns are magnified by memories – and continuing effects – of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, in which 11 million gallons of oil were spilled in Prince William Sound, destroying hundreds of thousands of birds and marine mammals and devastating the commercial fisheries of the sound.

But Djerassi notes that the film project "goes beyond what not to do – drill for oil and be dependent on oil – but also focuses on what we should do instead."

"We made this film to show that Americans deserve better alternatives than what Congress and the auto industry is providing," says Boudart. "The technologies exist right now to burn less oil, but we as consumers need to demand their implementation.

"We need to be more aware that our choices do have an impact, not only in Alaska's arctic refuge but in many places and in countries around the world."

Partners in Arms

"Oil on Ice" is the second joint effort by Djerassi and Boudart, who live in Northern California. Acquaintances since they were boys growing up in Portola Valley, they collaborated on a documentary that took them in the late 1980s to Brazil.

That film, produced by Djerassi and filmed by Boudart, was a documentary about Brazilian jazz musicians Flora Purim and Airto Moreira, titled "Nada Sera Como Antes," or "Nothing Will Be As it Was."

When Djerassi was invited on a trip down the Hulahula River, which traverses the wildlife refuge, about three years ago, "I jumped at it," he says. And he decided to take a crew to document the river trip and capture images of the refuge environment. Knowing that Boudart lived for a time in Alaska and had filmed much of its environment – including Prince William Sound after the Valdez oil spill – Djerassi asked him to go along on the trip.

Both men had years of experience in filmmaking. Djerassi, who studied documentary film production at Stanford University, had produced a number of films, including one about the kingdom of Bhutan and its efforts to protect its traditional culture; and another about Koko, the gorilla who communicates through sign language.

Boudart, who teaches screenwriting, had filmed and produced documentaries for the Discovery Channel, NOVA, PBS, Rand McNally and others. Topics included Alaska's Arctic Wildlife, Alaska's whales and wildlife, whale hunters, John Steinbeck's journey to Baja, and technology for a clean environment, among many others.

In the Arctic

Djerassi said that the scope of the video project expanded in his mind from documenting a trip down the river "to a range of issues around the oil industry." While the crew was in the Arctic, the threat to the wildlife refuge from the push to drill for oil "was never far from our minds."

But for Boudart, who co-produced "Oil on Ice" with Djerassi, the idea for such a film had been germinating for some time "because of the fact that I had begun to see how the juggernaut of oil development had begun to change Alaskans themselves," he says.

"After documenting the impact of the oil spill ... in Prince William Sound, and the ongoing pressure in 2001 to develop the Arctic refuge, I knew that it was important to make a film using some of my existing footage to show that this wasn't another place that would be inevitably sacrificed in the name of oil."

A major obstacle to preventing oil drilling in the refuge, both men agree, is that the Alaskan economy has become so dependent on revenue from oil. In fact, after Prudhoe Bay was opened up to drilling a number of years ago, a permanent fund was set up by the state, and the interest is paid out annually to every person living in the state, Djerassi explains.

"It's like a negative income tax – and that's basically addictive," he says. "I like to say that every citizen of Alaska has been bought off by the oil industry."

But, he adds, the drilling that generates that revenue is on state land. The refuge is federal land, "and it belongs to all the people in the United States. ... This is a national treasure."

Alternative Sources

The film explores options to oil-based energy and fuel for cars, and one segment shows vehicles fueled by bio gas; methane produced from waste.

The filmmakers note that the current administration argues that the country must reduce its dependence on foreign oil – an argument widely used by proponents of oil drilling in the refuge. But at the same time, "administration allies in Congress defeated Sen. John Kerry's attempt to increase fuel efficiency standards, which would have the same result," they argue in a synopsis of the film.

They also note that the amount of oil that might be under the ground in the refuge is miniscule in relation to the current oil needs of the United States, puncturing the argument that drilling there would lessen the country's dependence on foreign oil. A widely cited estimate places the total amount of recoverable oil in the refuge at the equivalent of what is used in this country in six months.

Democratic Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, who strongly opposes oil drilling in the Arctic refuge, bluntly states: "We consume 25 percent of the world's oil. We have a problem. ANWR is not going to solve this."

A long-range study of world energy resources being completed by retired SRI scientists Ed Kinderman and Hew Crane gives a grim picture of the rate at which we are consuming the world's fixed reserves of oil. They have gathered information on reserves and availability of many kinds of energy, and converted them into the equivalent of cubic miles of oil.

The world now has 35 cubic miles of assured oil reserves, Kinderman says. "It is spending these reserves at a rate of one cubic mile per year. And the rate is increasing."

Noting that Alaskan oil at best would fuel the United States for just a few months, Kinderman concludes, "At the current spending rate, we have 35 years of assured oil. If oil use continues to rise – even under the best circumstances – Iraq could be a warm-up for the problems of the future."

Hybrid cars and other fuel-efficient vehicles are good options at this point to gas-guzzlers, the filmmakers say in the documentary's synopsis, but "over the long term, 'Oil on Ice' suggests that a technological transformation that draws energy from fuel cells, photovoltaic cells and wind-power can allow civilization to prosper without sacrificing the beauty and biodiversity of the Earth."

And the beauty and biodiversity that must be protected, they argue in their film, include the wildlife refuge's muskoxen, polar and grizzly bears, caribou, wolves, weasels, foxes, dall sheep, and 180 species of migratory birds that cross six continents to reach the Arctic.

For information on screenings in your area or to purchase the DVD, visit the Oil on Ice website. This article originally appeared in The Almanac.

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