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A Bush adviser says the major oil companies have a dimmer view of the refuge's prospects than the administration does. "If the government gave them the leases for free they wouldn't take them," said the adviser, who would speak only anonymously because of his position. "No oil company really cares about ANWR," the adviser said, using an acronym for the refuge, pronounced "an-war."
Advocates cite a 1998 government study that estimated the part of the refuge proposed for drilling might hold 10 billion barrels of oil. But only one test well has been drilled, in the 1980's, and its results are one of the industry's most closely guarded secrets.
For the Interior Department, however, the refuge is the best land-based opportunity to find new oil. Any lease revenues, estimated by the department to be $2.4 billion in 2007, would be split between the federal and state governments. Advocates say oil production could reach one million barrels per day. In a decade from now, when the site might be fully developed, that would be about 4 percent of American consumption, according to federal forecasts.
David L. Bernhardt, deputy chief of staff to the secretary of the interior, cited a 1998 study by the United States Geological Survey estimating that the refuge might hold 10.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil. (The estimate for offshore oil is 76 billion barrels.)
But that study has significant weaknesses, which Mr. Bernhardt acknowledged. Its estimates are of "petroleum resources" - potential oil deposits - instead of "petroleum reserves," which refers to oil that has been discovered.
Ken Bird, a geological survey official who worked on the study, said the federal geologists did not have access to test data from the only exploratory well drilled on the refuge, by Chevron Texaco and BP in the 1980's. An official with one of the companies, speaking anonymously because of the confidentiality of the test, said that if the results had been encouraging the company would be more engaged in the political effort to open the refuge.
There has not been much discussion about the refuge between the companies and the Bush administration, according to industry and government officials.
Mr. Hunt, through an aide, declined an interview request. Others who advised Mr. Bush on his energy plan said including the refuge was seen as a political maneuver to open the door to more geologically promising prospects off the coasts of California and Florida. Those areas, where tests have found oil, have been blocked for years by federal moratoriums because of political and environmental concerns.
"If you can't do ANWR," said Matthew R. Simmons, a Houston investment banker for the energy industry and a Bush adviser in 2000, "you'll never be able to drill in the promising areas."