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The ANWR Controversy
by Tucker Van Lier Ribbink
ASEM: Environmental Controversies
Professor Christina Foust
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is a biodiverse, 19.6 million acre area of pristine, federally owned and protected land in Northeast Alaska. The area consists of lowland tundra, coastal marshes, freshwater wetlands, mountains, rivers, lakes, and valleys. It is home to 45 species of land and marine mammals, 36 species of fish, and 180 species of birds (US Fish and Wildlife Service).
It also happens to be home to an estimated 7.7 billion barrels of oil that is technically recoverable, according to a study conducted by the US Geological Survey (USGS) in 1998, making the area a hot button issue for political and environmental debate. The 7.7 billion barrels of oil reside in a 1.5 million acre coastal plain known as the 1002 area. Opponents to drilling in the area suggest that drilling would devastate the coastal plain’s extraordinary environment and fragile ecosystem. Drilling advocates argue that opening the area to development would reduce gas prices, ensure energy independence, sustain the Trans-Alaska Pipeline (and, in effect, the Alaskan economy), and significantly benefit the US economy, all while having little to no adverse effect on the area’s environment. Based on my research of the various arguments for and against drilling in ANWR, I have come to the conclusion that the 1002 area should be opened for further research and exploration.
The 1002 area got its name from the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) of 1980, as Section 1002 of the act deferred a decision on the management of the coastal plain due to the vast oil and gas reserves the area potentially held. Section 1002 of the ANILCA reads as follows:
The purpose of this section is to provide for a comprehensive and continuing inventory and assessment of the fish and wildlife resources of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; an analysis of the impacts of oil and gas exploration development, and production, and to authorize exploratory activity within the coastal plain in a manner that avoids significant adverse effects on the fish and wildlife and other resources. (Sullivan)
So while Congress does have an obligation to protect the region’s habitat, it also has an obligation to authorize exploratory activity for the prospect of oil and gas development.
Those who oppose drilling argue that Congress met such obligations with the USGS assessment of 1998. Recent advances in exploratory and drilling technologies, however, make the 1998 estimates irrelevant. As indicated in the State of Alaska’s 2013 Exploration Plan and Special Use Permit Application, advances in technology, including “today’s high-power computer hardware, cutting edge interpretive software [and] the 3-D imaging technology…will provide a vastly improved understanding of the 1002 Area’s geology and oil and gas resource potential” (Parnell and Sullivan 17-18). 3-D seismic data are said to be “vastly superior” to the 2-D seismic data that were recorded in the mid-1980s. Those 30-year-old data were used in the USGS’s 1998 assessment and happen to be the most recent data we have from the region. The assessment concluded that the area contains an estimated 7.7 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil. A similar study of Prudhoe Bay (located 600 miles west of Section 1002) estimated the Prudhoe field to hold 9.6 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil. The field has now yielded over 12 billion barrels of oil and is estimated to contain 6 billion more barrels (Parnell and Sullivan 110).
My point is not to say that the 1002 area holds more oil than originally estimated—for all we know, the amount of technically recoverable oil is considerably less than the USGS survey concluded. My point is that until we have a more accurate understanding of how much oil and gas there actually is in the 1002 area, there is very little value in continued debate regarding the area’s future.
To ensure minimal and negligible adverse effects to the tundra, fish, and other wildlife during exploration, the state of Alaska is seeking to conduct its study only during the winter months when wildlife is scarce. Ice pads and ice roads used for drilling and transportation in the winter would then melt in the spring, having little or no impact on the environment. This, along with Alaska’s high environmental standards and advanced low-impact technologies, promises an effective and safe exploration of Area 1002.
Environmentalist groups, including Defenders of Wildlife, protest that any impact is too much impact for an area so pristine and beautiful. The area has been portrayed as having a lush, mountainous landscape, complete with fields of flowers, clean springs, and gently flowing rivers. This is certainly true for parts of the 19.6 million acre land of ANWR. However, in the 1002 area where drilling is being proposed, “there are no mountains and no trees, just a flat frozen tundra” (Fallin). The blatant use of false imagery and description for political gain is deceptive, unethical, and somewhat condescending. To appreciate the area for its unique and untouched characteristics is one thing, but to claim it as something it is not is another. Not only does this gimmick engender distrust of future anti-drilling rhetoric, but it also highlights the coastal plain’s aesthetic as a major focus in the debate, which is certainly not one of the area’s strengths.
In discussing environmental effects of oil development, both sides of the debate focus heavily on the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which uses the 1002 area as their main calving ground. The most recent photocensus of the Porcupine Caribou Herd has estimated the herd’s population at 197,000 caribou, up 28,000 caribou since the last estimate conducted in 2010 (Rogers). The herd spends two months of its 930-mile yearly migration in Section 1002 because it is nutrient rich and offers relief from mosquitoes and other insects that harass the herd.
Drilling opponents fear that oil development in the coastal plain would displace the herd, forcing them out of their preferred habitat and into areas with more predators and less nutrition. However, sizeable increases in the Central Arctic Caribou Herd would suggest otherwise. This herd has flourished despite (or possibly due to) the introduction of a vast network of oil development infrastructure, roads, and facilities in the herd’s primary calving ground of Prudhoe Bay, located 600 miles east of the 1002 area.
In 1975, years before oil production began, the Central Arctic Caribou Herd totaled less than 5,000. By 2002, the herd had grown to 45,000. Six years after that, the herd size increased to 67,000 (“Co-existing”). Since the 1002 area is one-fifth the size of Prudhoe Bay, and the Porcupine Caribou Herd is much larger than the Central Arctic Herd, some argue that the Porcupine Caribou Herd is more vulnerable as suitable alternative habitats “might not be available” (Jacobs). However, in the past fifteen years of investigations, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has found that the herd roams over a vast expanse and that the caribou have historically calved “over a fairly large area of the North Slope and the Yukon Territory” (Urquhuart, qtd. in Jacobs).
While certain studies suggest that oil facilities and structures in Prudhoe Bay have displaced some Central Arctic Caribou, recent aerial studies show otherwise, with “many caribou on and around surface structures,” walking under pipelines with ease during summer migration (Jacobs). In The Natural History of an Arctic Oil Field, the researchers note that while earlier “radio-collar” studies suggested a tendency to avoid oil-field facilities, more frequent aerial surveys indicate that the caribou distribution “on the larger scale was largely unrelated to the distribution of oil-field infrastructure” (Truett and Johnson 99).
Furthermore, other studies have concluded that the caribou actually seek out gravel pads and oil field structures in order to escape insect harassment and take sanctuary in the structures’ shade and cooler environments. One scientist remarked that “even when disturbed by moving vehicles, caribou most commonly just move to another location on the pad rather than leaving the pad” (Lynn, qtd. in Jacobs). The authors concluded that, “with clear identification of management objectives and common-sense applications of mitigation measures, caribou can coexist with oil fields” (Truett and Johnson 101).
Lastly, in their most recent assessment, the USGS and the US Fish and Wildlife Service have declared that, based on the most likely ANWR development scenarios, “there is a 95% degree of certainty that there is a nearly negligible impact on calf survival” (“Policy Area: ANWR”). While the negative impact of drilling would be nearly negligible, its positive impacts on Alaska’s economy would be staggering.
The state of Alaska has always been a major source of oil production within the United States. At its peak of 2.2 million barrels per day, “Alaska provided about 25 percent of the nation’s domestic crude oil production” (Magill). That oil was transported through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), which travels 800 miles down the oil fields of the North Slope to Valdez on Alaska’s southern coast. Unfortunately, the flow of oil through the pipeline has been diminishing at an alarming rate of 5 percent per year (Parnell and Sullivan 117). Decreases in oil lead to decreases in velocity, which then lead to decreases in temperature, which finally lead to increases in wax, bacteria, and ice buildup. This buildup erodes the pipe and constricts the flow of oil, which then increases costs, making it less and less economical for oil companies like BP to continue supplying domestic oil from Alaska. According to ANWR.org, “America will lose the possibility to supply 10% of its current daily consumption of oil.” At its current rate of depletion, some studies predict the end of TAPS as early as 2032, while others predict it may last until 2065. A future without the TAPS has frightening implications for the US economy and terrifying implications for Alaska and its citizens.
According to the Alaska Oil and Gas Association (AOGA), “the petroleum industry supports one-third of all Alaska jobs, generating 110,000 jobs throughout the state.” Despite decreases in production, the oil and gas industry still provides 90 percent of the state’s revenue. Should the TAPS shut down, much of this revenue will disappear, taking with it the jobs and livelihoods of many Alaskan citizens. Not only would oil in ANWR sustain the pipeline and these livelihoods, it would also generate “from about 20,000 to over 170,000 jobs…according to analyses based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics” (Parnell and Sullivan 193). At the most optimistic estimates, drilling in ANWR would maintain 110,000 existing jobs and provide 170,000 new jobs.
Assuming the USGS mean estimate from its 1998 study, the amount of recoverable oil would have “a production period of nearly 40 years” (Parnell and Sullivan 203). While hydraulic fracturing and other advances in oil production have recently enabled the US to produce more than it imports for the first time in nearly 20 years, we still import 40 percent of the petroleum we consume as of 2012 (“How Much”). Assuming the mean estimate for technically recoverable oil is 10.4 billion barrels, the 1002 area could produce one million barrels per day, which would make Area 1002 the single largest producing field in North America. In fact, the oil production potential of the 1002 area is about equal to the production of 41 states combined (“Policy Area”). At one million barrels of oil per day, ANWR drilling would provide the US with 20 percent of its daily domestic production. While drilling in ANWR would only produce an estimated 3 percent of Americans’ daily consumption, the area is believed to hold the greatest potential for onshore crude oil in America (Freudenrich). With US debt approaching $18 trillion, it’s important that we not close ourselves off from natural resources. After all, each barrel produced domestically is a barrel not purchased with foreign money.
The controversy of opening or closing ANWR to drilling is somewhat useless since the most current research was gathered using 2D seismic technology as opposed to the vastly superior 3-D tech. Until we have a better understanding of the resources that reside in Area 1002, we can expect little progress toward a fair and educated decision. That being said, should exploration reveal oil reserves greater than in the 1998 USGS assessment, I do believe that we can and should drill the area in an effective yet environmentally safe manner. Prudhoe Bay serves as evidence that we are capable of drilling for oil with a minimal and negligible impact on the environment. Since Prudhoe Bay development began, exploration and drilling technologies and methods including ice roads, ice pads, and horizontal drilling have advanced to a stage that would have even less impact on the environment and, more specifically, on the Porcupine Caribou Herd. With the TAPS’s unknown future and the US still recovering from a devastating economic crisis, it is imperative that we keep our energy options open.
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A note from the author
This argumentative research paper discusses the contested site of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)—its pristine and striking landscapes, its rare and fragile ecosystem, and the billions of barrels of oil and natural gas that reside beneath its surface. To drill, or not to drill: that is always the question. ANWR and its oil reserves have been a source of intense political controversy since it was first signed into law in 1980. When I initially chose to write about ANWR, I thought I already knew everything I needed. Drilling in ANWR had been in the foreground of the 2008 presidential election, and news channels aired many live broadcast debates on the subject. It wasn’t until I conducted my own research that I realized the news media are not always reliable sources of information.
My hope in this essay is to shed some light on the current state of the ANWR controversy and to encourage readers to research political issues deeply before drawing conclusions.
About the author
Tucker was born and raised in Kaneohe, Hawaii, where he grew up surfing, hiking, paddling, kayaking, and sailing. Without ever having owned a jacket or pair of jeans, he somehow decided snowy Colorado would be a great place for him to pursue his college career. While at DU, he was active with the kayaking club. Tucker graduated from the University of Denver in the fall of 2014 with a degree in marketing, and he has recently moved to Seattle, where he now needs to find a good rain jacket.
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