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Should the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge be Open for Drilling?


When ANWR was designated a National Wildlife Refuge, the Alaska Lands Act of 1980 authorized a study of the oil and gas potential of this 1.5 million acre area on the coastal plain now called Area 1002. Congress would have the final say whether or not Area 1002 would be used for oil and gas development. Because of the many special attributes found in this piece of land (as habitat for plants and animals), an epic conservation battle has been underway for years.

The Refuge contains the greatest wildlife diversity of any protected area in the circumpolar north. The animals are well adapted to the arctic and able to withstand a range of extreme environmental conditions.

A total of 180 bird species have been recorded in the Refuge with some 130 species breeding or "staging" in the Refuge coastal plain during migration. Nesting and related activities occur April to July. By mid-September most birds depart for wintering areas in Asia, Africa, South America, the South Pacific and every state and province except Hawaii.

The Refuge provides habitat for 36 species of fish, mostly in the rich coastal lagoons.

Forty-five species of mammals including caribou grizzly and polar bears, wolves, moose, lynx, weasels, fox and wolverines live on the Refuge; 36 occur on land and 9 are marine species that can be seen along the coast. Each year the Porcupine caribou herd journeys more than 800 miles to and from its ancestral calving grounds. Each May and June the herd migrates to the coastal plain to give birth. It stays in the plain and surrounding area until early July when migration urges send them on their way toward their wintering grounds in the mountains and valleys south of the Brooks Range.

The ground lies permanently frozen below much of the Refuge. This permafrost layer causes many areas to remain wet during the summer. Because of this, plant communities are extremely fragile and easily impacted by human activities and take a long time to recover from disturbances. The Refuge is roadless, so primary access is by air. Pilots land their planes on river gravel or tundra landing sites to minimize impact on the land.

The native people who live in the few towns inside the Refuge are called the Vuntut Gwich'in. For over 20,000 years these people have roamed the mountains and tundra of this land. Today food and tools are flown in from the south, but many Gwich'in still live off the land and depend on the caribou in much the same way their ancestors did. Oil development to the west of ANWR has brought money and opportunities to the native people living near the Prudoe Bay. Many of the people living in the proposed drilling area see this potential and favor drilling.

Historically in the spring the caribou migrate north past the Gwich'in villages to the coastal plain (Area 1002 and northwestern Yukon) where dense vegetation provides cows critical nutrients for nursing. The plain provides refuge from the wolves and grizzlies that feast on calves born too soon in the hills, as well as from the relentless mosquitoes that can drain as much as a quart of blood from an animal.

The movements of these caribou through the tundra of northern Alaska have become the subject of intense global interest. Below the surface of this frozen land lies oil. Because the US oil reserves are not sufficient to cover consumption, the US is dependent on foreign oil sources. The current US administration proposes to expand North Slope oil and gas drilling operations into the heart of the calving area on the grassy shelf between the mountains of the Brooks Range and the Beaufort Sea.

Can We Preserve the Refuge and Get the Oil?

Tundra Lake from the air
credit US Fish and Wildlife Service

Believed to be the largest onshore oil reservoir with petroleum potential in the US, Area 1002-a 1.5-million-acre (0.6-million-hectare) coastal section of ANWR prompts what seems like unsolvable debate. Experts argue over the amount of oil. One native group stands to profit from drilling while another worries about disruptions to life-sustaining caribou herds. But a key debate boils down to this: How will the necessary infrastructure for extracting oil-roads, airstrips, drilling pads-affect the habitat of the 200 or so species of birds and other animals? Is extraction worth the economic cost and the environmental risks?

To begin to answer this question, we must look to recent history. Conservationist would argue that accidents could happen that would mar the landscape and cause damage to the species protected in the Refuge. Like in the grounding of the oil-filled Exxon Valdez which dumped thousands of gallons of oil into the fragile arctic waters. In addition to accidents, conservationists fear that the building and maintaining of roads, airstrips and drilling pads might adversely affect habitat essential to the many arctic species.

ANWR's 1.5 million acre coastal plain is home to the largest concentrations of wildlife in the 19-million acre refuge. The Department of Interior has estimated that drilling would directly impact 12,500 acres through a web of roads, drill pads, pipelines, power plants, processing facilities, and airports extending over hundreds of square miles. Infrastructure from Prudhoe Bay and 18 other oil-producing fields including the Trans-Alaska Pipeline has already directly affected about 22,000 acres of tundra wetlands, with the overall industrial complex extending across more than 1,000 square miles of the North Slope. In Prudhoe Bay, decreased nesting populations of eight species of shorebirds were found along oil field roads.

Proponents of drilling explain that development of oil production facilities has come a long way. Pumping oil out of the ground and into gas tanks is easier than ever before. Finding oil has become a more exact process so that the number of drilling pads and buildings is reduced. Oil production on US land would reduce the amount of foreign oil needed.

Oil Consumption versus Conservation
How much oil is under the frozen land in ANWR? This is the billion dollar question. Technology only allows us to estimate at this time. The proponents, those in favor of drilling for oil, predict there are up to 16 billion barrels to be recovered from under the land. In contrast, experts who are opponents to drilling, argue that there are less than 4 billion barrels. This is a large difference. Each group has data to support their estimates. Current drilling and pumping experts agree that about a million barrels of oil a day could be recovered from this area. But, for how long?

In the U.S., vehicles currently use 19.4 million barrels of oil every day. For as long as it might last, the million barrel a day expected from the ANWR drilling represents less dependence on foreign oil.

One source says that a million gallons a day from ANWR would reduce needs for importing oil by only 9%, with the U.S. still importing more than half its crude oil. Can we look to conserving our supply of oil by simply using or consuming less? Manufacturing vehicles with more efficient engines requiring less gasoline is an option the car manufacturers are considering. Legislation to require this kind of conservation action is possible. Experts report that improving the efficiency of vehicle fuel consumption could save us as much as a million barrels of oil a day.

In Conclusion
You have already begun to understand this complex issue. Our dependence on oil and related products is sending us on a search for more resources. However, purchasing foreign oil is becoming increasingly more difficult.
We are left with some complex decisions to make. Can we continue to consume oil at the rate we are today? Are we willing to support legislation for more efficient cars? Today's oil drilling technology has improved and there is less damage to the land then in the past, but what impact does oil drilling have on our pristine wilderness land?

  2. Exerpts from Joe Lieberman, April 6, 2000
  3. AUDUBON Sept. Oct. 2001, The Last Great Wilderness
  4. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  5. Washington Post
  6. NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC August 2001, Oil Field or Sanctuary