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Houseknecht said he might know more about the 1002 area’s oil potential after the federal agency updates its 1998 assessment, a step proposed by the pro-development Trump administration in May.

“Talk to me in a year and a half and I may have a different answer,” he said.

Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska regional director of The Wilderness Society, cautioned that oil production on the plain, whether tied to a large field or many smaller ones, would lead to industrial sprawl harmful to wildlife and the refuge.

She said she doesn’t want to know whether large pools of oil exist in the refuge: “We honestly hope we never find out.”

Gil Mull recorded oil-saturated sandstone in ANWR near the Marsh Creek anticline in July of 1963, just south of the coastal plain. The rock had a strong oil odor when pieces were knocked off, and oil was visible in the brown portions of the rock. Approximately 25 to 30 percent of the sandstone contained oil. (Gil Mull / ARCO)