Oil Drilling in Alaska

Caribou on Alaska's North Slope
Caribou on Alaska’s North Slope

Editor’s Note: It is virtually impossible to get an unbiased assessment of the campaign to open the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. On one hand, the recoverable oil in the refuge, possibly amounting to as much as ten billion barrels, is enough oil to supply the entire needs of the United States for about 18 months.

While that sounds trivial, it isn’t – the US consumes about 20 million barrels of oil per day, and at a rate of 1.5 million barrels per day from Alaska, 7.5% of America’s oil consumption could be met for over 20 years.

Put another way, this much Alaskan oil could reduce American oil imports by about 15%, American imports from the Middle East by over 25%. The effect of Alaskan oil on helping manage oil prices is significant.

But so what? Americans could reduce oil consumption far more than Alaska can produce oil, simply by eliminating the SUV’s commercial vehicle exemptions from fuel efficiency standards, and by developing hybrid technologies, and by aggressively raising fuel efficiency requirements.

What is really at stake in Alaska is the precedent. If the Alaskan refuge is opened to drilling, the California coast and the Rocky Mountains will be next.

If oil drilling was opened up everywhere it has been heretofore off limits, the oil available might increase by an order of magnitude, possibly ensuring American energy security for decades. In the world, more oil would be available to help other nations industrialize. On the other hand, risks to the environment might increase by the same measure. Which matters more, and what alternatives are there? – Ed “Redwood” Ring

Life without cars is impossible.

If you are one of the few without a personal vehicle it is likely you take trips on the subway, bus, train or ferry. Ask almost anyone in the United States about their day and it will involve a car trip along one of the millions of crisscrossing streets that lace America like a giant spider web. Cars rush along the pavement filled with drivers on their way to pick up groceries, take the kids to school, go to work or to go on long road trips.

According to the American Petroleum Institute, there are “70 million more drivers on the road driving about 113 million more vehicles today than there were 30 years ago. Over this same period of time, drivers have increased the miles they each drive by about 44 percent, which means that vehicles traveled per year had increased by about 145 percent since 1970.” The increased need for vehicles has come with an increased need for fuel.

Unfortunately, fuel isn’t the most environmentally friendly energy source. Anyone who has walked behind a car and choked on the exhaust fumes knows it can’t be good for the air. Soon after the first cars left behind the noxious black smoke it became obvious that fuels needed some refining. It didn’t take long for the gas industry to develop cleaner technology and fuels. Modern, unleaded fuels are less hazardous and less of a pollutant now. In fact, the U.S EPA [(Environmental Protection Agency)] found that vehicle emissions have declined 41% since 1970 despite the increased amount of vehicles on the road. However, that does not mean that all problems associated with fuel have been solved. Far from it.

Alpine Oilfield in Northern Alaska
The Alpine Oilfield in Northern Alaska
Where it all begins

A major issue is the process of retrieving crude oil from the earth. Pipe leaks, accidents during transport and spills are still commonplace. The American Petroleum Institute claims that many steps are taken to “assure that oil and natural gas can be produced with minimal environmental impact.” API also provides some examples: “Directional drilling technology allows us to access oil and gas resources that underlie a sensitive area, such as a wetland, from an area nearby where a drilling rig can safely be located. In the Arctic, companies build ice roads and ice drilling pads that melt away in the spring. Companies have substantially reduced the amount of land disturbance required for drilling a well and by drilling several wells from a single location (with directional or multi-lateral technology) require a much smaller number of sites to achieve the same level of production.”

Yet even with impressive technological advancements in the drilling industry, oil rigs and human intrusions still alter the environment and often devastate habitats. Brian Moore, legislative director of the Alaska Wilderness League, knows just how harmful drilling can be. “Prudhoe bay has 400 toxic spills a year,” he says with concern, “that’s more than one spill a day. These spills don’t only affect the drilling site but lands adjacent as well. Devastating effects are real and clear. Environmentalists have not made them up.” It is hard to forget the oil covered seabirds, otters and seals that slowly died after 10 million gallons of crude oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez in 1989. Naturally, environmentalists cringe when plans arise to drill in an area full of wildlife. The possibility that drilling may take place in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), an area renowned for unique wildlife and pristine habitat, is a shock to any nature lover.

Drilling in the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge will definitely leave its mark. Moore explains that drilling in the refuge will have devastating effects: “Oil exploration is planned to take place in the most critical and sensitive area of the refuge. 130,000 caribou, the last large migrating mammal in the U.S, migrate hundreds of miles to calf here in late May and June, in this one area, and this is where they want to put oil rigs! Gravel roads and drained wetlands are not conducive to them giving birth. It is also devastating to denning polar bears. The polar bear population is already declining and is already threatened by extinction. Oil drilling and extraction may increase the odds of losing the species. Native Alaskans, Gwich’in Indians, whose life revolves around this piece of land will have the most important thing in their culture, the calving ground, taken away from them Gwich’in Indians, rely on the migratory Porcupine Caribou herd as a key source of food and clothing.] It is cultural genocide.” To make matters worse, the Refuge constitutes the last 5% of the Alaskan North Slope not open to oil drilling. Drilling operations already exist throughout the rest of the area. The Refuge is the last area wildlife can live peacefully.

Pipeline in Snow
North to South – The Alaska Pipeline

The oil industry argues that they will only leave a small footprint in the Arctic, covering a mere 2,000 acres-the size of the Dallas Airport. Yet these measurements do not realistically represent the areas affected by these drilling operations. Vinay Jain, a spokesperson for the National Wildlife Federation, is skeptical of with the oil industry’s skewed measurements. “They have said it will only cover 2000 acres,” he says, “but the problem lies in the fact that they are condensing. If you realistically measure the areas influenced by oil rigs, it is really spread out. Think of it as a spider web: When the web is spread out, it covers a very large area but when you ball it up it is only a fraction of its original size. They [the oil industry] are giving you the number made up of all the rigs without counting the area in between-the industry is giving you the balled up number. Roads and platforms, these things are all spread out and cause fragmentation of habitat. It isn’t just one solid area of 2000 acres, it’s much more.”

The Republican Party has had an obvious interest in the Arctic refuge’s oil wells. As the former owner of Arbusto Energy Inc. and Bush Exploration, American President Bush has always had an interest in oil. Vice President Cheney, also a former oil man, had experience being the CEO of the world’s largest oil service company-the Halliburton Company. It is not surprising then, that oil companies have connections with the government. Defenders of Wildlife note that oil and gas firms have donated $1,761,567 to Bush’s presidential campaign making them one of the highest contributors and therefore also the most influential. Exxon Mobil Corp., ConocoPhillips and BP PLC are some of the companies enthusiastic about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Oil Industry on Tundra
From well to pipeline to tankers bound for world oil markets
A part of the massive Prudhoe Bay oilfield

Recent republican gains in the Senate could give President Bush a real chance of opening the Alaska wildlife refuge to drilling. For one thing, four Republican senators who favor drilling in the refuge were elected early November and replaced Democrats who opposed the proposal in 2003. These new members could make all the difference when voting to drill in the Arctic. There is also a sneaky strategy involved to guarantee success for pro-drilling groups: By attaching drilling to the federal budget resolution it becomes a filibuster-proof strategy. The budget resolution would instruct the House Resources Committee to generate savings over the next few years. This goal would be accomplished by identifying new revenue sources, one of which would be the revenue created by selling oil leases in the Arctic refuge.

Jain is disappointed with the strategy: “It [attaching drilling revenues to the budget] is a fairly undemocratic way of doing things. This is a way of avoiding an honest and open debate. It is not the right way to decide an issue as important as this. A fair and open debate is the proper way to handle this situation and the drilling proposals should be distinct from the budget bill which was never intended for this purpose.”

So why is drilling in the Arctic so important? Moore is surprised with the oil industry’s interest there as well: “Why are they so interested in drilling in the Arctic refuge? It’s hard to understand. It’s not about the oil. The House Majority Leader, Tom Delay (R-Texas), gave a speech last year admitting that it’s all about the precedent. He essentially said that if we can drill in the Arctic Refuge we can drill anywhere. Opening the Arctic to oil exploration will open other lands for future use by the oil industry.” According to Moore, “It starts with the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, and then it’ll be Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon or the coast of California. It’s not about the oil. The Coastal Plain is the last bit of Arctic coast left. The oil industry would want nothing more than to put a fence of oil rigs around Alaska. Its crazy to me, but it seems that that’s what they want. Like a bunch of drunken sailors; they are on a binge and the only thing they want is more oil and more land to suck it out of.”

Jain explains that “the amount of oil in the refuge is marginal at best. It is not going to make a difference. Drilling in the Arctic Refuge is symbolic of a larger effort. It’s about getting into one protected area and using the momentum to get into another.”

Alaskan Mountains
Only 5% of Alaska’s Wilderness Remains Off-Limits to Drilling
The ANWR portion just happens to be sitting on vast oil reserves.

The Bush administration officials claim that drilling in the Arctic will enhance U.S security by reducing dependence on imported oil. They also promote this controversial venture by stating that drilling will reduce the country’s energy shortages. However, very little electrical power comes from oil. Another argument states that drilling will reduce the oil prices. The American Petroleum Institute explains how this would work: “Crude oil prices are established in world markets responding to supply and demand. New discoveries are crucially important to supply. Every barrel of oil produced domestically is one less barrel that must be purchased from foreign sources. In the long term, additional U.S. supplies help to hold down crude oil prices because demand for crude oil from non-U.S. sources is lower than it would be without added domestic production…”

Moore explains that “the argument they put forth is that drilling will reduce our dependency on foreign oil. The Department of Energy, however, stated that if we started drilling today, oil would not reach peak production till after 2020 and if oil is in fact present, it would only reduce oil dependency by about 2%.” It is assumed that the oil present in Alaska is not enough to meet even a fraction of America’s needs. Projections in 1998 showed a 95% chance of finding 3 billion barrels of oil and a 5% chance of finding 10.5 barrels of oil. 3 billion barrels of oil would barely supply enough oil to last half a year in the U.S. It is hard to believe that drilling in Alaska will benefit U.S citizens since any oil that exists will take about a decade to reach the market and estimates on the amount of oil in the area are speculative. Further more, prices will not fluctuate from drilling in Alaska since the amount of oil found in the refuge is minimal.

Eventually though, there will be no where else to drill when we have exhausted all other resources. Jain believes the best solution is to look for additional energy resources and reduce demand for oil before it gets to that point. “Reducing demand for oil is a better strategy then drilling a pristine corner of Alaska to increase supply, especially when there’s relatively little oil there. When we think about ways to meet America’s energy needs we tend to turn towards oil, however we can still maintain an American lifestyle with alternative energy. The technology is out there. Hydrogen is something that may be promising years down the road, but in the short term, we can save a lot of oil by making cars more fuel efficient. By simply increasing the average fuel economy by a few gallons we would save much more oil than we would get from drilling in the refuge. The new Honda Accord Hybrid is more powerful than the regular Accord. The idea that you have to give up one thing [power] to be environmentally sound is a false one. You can have a fuel efficient car that is also more powerful. We can’t just drill our way to energy independence.”

Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was founded over 40 years ago by President Eisenhower. He wanted to preserve this pristine area. It is a sad fact that congress wants to abandon 44 years of legacy. This wildlife refuge is one of the last pristine areas on earth. Caribou, grizzlies, polar bears, wolves, thousands of birds and countless other animals make this unique area their home. This pristine habitat should not be turned into an industrial zone.

The battle for this area is symbolic and it is important for conservationists and the American public in general to realize this. “This is one of the last pristine areas in America,” Jain says, “we know we are not going to reduce gas prices and reduce independence on foreign oil by drilling here. If we can’t conserve this tiny sliver of habitat for future generations what does that say about our priorities?”

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16 Responses to “Oil Drilling in Alaska”
  1. O Nwankwo says:

    If started now, new offshore drilling would only make up about 1% of our oil needs in 2030! See http://www.drillbabydrilltruth.com/

  2. Lew says:

    American imports 3.67 billion barrels of oil yearly, as of 2005. With this knowledge if the pipeline was open and drilling took place, if the maxim amount oil was recovered which would be roughly around 15.9 billion barrels. The United States would be able be independent of any foreign imports for only 4.08 years! Surely drilling in Alaska will not solve the problem for America and its energy resource. On top of this knowledge the drilling would not take place in one central location, it would be a spider web of connections across 1,000 sq mile of forest. This would prove disastrous to the unique wildlife and Eco relationships found in this area. The U.S fish and game and have studied this area and reported that: “”greater degree of ecological diversity than any other similar sized area of Alaska’s north slope.” This reserve is home to 5,000-7,000 Inuits as well. There main source of food is Caribou, they live off the land, and it is their home. The Natives have been here hundreds of years before us. This is all they have left to call their home. The Natives reported that drilling would disrupt their life, and take away what they have left of their land, as well would cut the population of caribou down significantly. Surely the odds outweigh the benefits for drilling in Alaska, the mere fact that it would only provide enough oil for 4 years, is enough evidence and support that we as a Nation need to look to alternative energy resources to solve the crisis we face.

  3. cyndi says:

    i DISAGREE, i think there shouldn’t be any drilling!

  4. Louis says:

    We need to drill for oil, not because of the economic gains but because of the increase in national security it will cause. Instead of giving our money to terrorists who will use it to buy guns to kill us, we should keep our money here in America.

  5. Bob Bobloid says:

    cyndi, you are an imbecile! The amount of land that will be used for drilling is like a cell in your body. It’s minuscule! Even though there is a risk of possible spills and minor harm to the wildlife, don’t we have to risk something to get a reward. In life, there is also a risk for anything. When your child goes outside, do you really consider all the possibilities. Your child could get hit by a car, trip and break a bone, kick a rock that skips into your car window and randomly shatters it! You can on and on. Seriously!!!! Think about it!!!!!

  6. johnny appleseed says:

    On the other hand Mr. Bobloid, sure it’s a small damage to environmental life, but a bunch of little things add up to one huge problem. I’m only arguing because your calling names, not necessary. =)

  7. jennie says:

    I agree with you Bob Bobloid, not only because the risk’s but because of us. We need to dril so that in the feuture our kids dont have to pay just about all their money for gas on their car. and even if some animals die its more important than that, yes our kids may never see a polar bair, i havent seen one up close and in person do you see me complaining. I think not…

  8. Nick says:

    Does anyone know when this article was published?

  9. Emily says:

    Yeah anyone know who this was published by?

  10. Thanks for the comments Nick & Emily.

    This article was originally published on December 18, 2004 exclusively for EcoWorld. It was written by Ed Ring, a member of our senior editorial staff and a founder of EcoWorld from 1995.

  11. Heather Moore says:

    From reading the comments above, more research needs to be done. It is said that the amount of area that is targeted for drilling is comparable to a postage stamp on someones living room floor. When an estimated area is given, (which I don’t know the exact amount for Alaska) that number of acres represents the area that oil rigs would take up if they were all placed in a bunch, but that’s not how oil production works, oil rigs are spread miles apart from each other. So say that the targeted area for drilling in Alaska would be twenty acres, with the large spread of oil rigs in that area, the area could possibly amount to over eighty acres of land harming all of the animals. Polar bears are fighting extinction, do we really want to be responsible for that when we can drill in other areas, areas that have already been okayed for oil exploration?

    What should be the main focus is finding a replacement form of energy, one that isn’t going to harm so many animal lives, and one that is isn’t going to release so many toxic fumes in the air that we breathe. We need to scientifically find an alternative that will make us independent of foreign countries.

  12. Flower says:

    What about consindering using other more eco-friendly resources for transportation including bio-fuel and hybrid vehicles. We have only relied on oil for fueling our cars when there are many more options to work with. I agree that even if the land in Alaska is drilled for oil, it will only last for a short period of time. I think that we need to spend more time figuring out healthy alternatives and less time focusing on one option that will eventually tap all the natural resources that this beautiful planet has to offer. We absolutely do NOT have to rely on the middle east or other countries to supply us with the materials we need to get around!!! We as humans are intelligent enough to find other solutions that can serve us now and for the years to come. Or, maybe we don’t really NEED to drive fuel-hogging vehicles. We have two good legs for a reason!

  13. samantha goodall says:

    I am doing a project in my 7th grade science class and i am doing reseach on the effect of oil drilling in the arctic national wildlife refuge. drilling oil there is good but in several ways it is really bad.it give all the amazing animals less places for themto shelter, find food, and take care of there wonderful babys.the severalspills that happen in 1 year that is not good at all for the animals such as the polar bears,musk ox,caribou,lemmins,wolves,arctic fox,ext.the oil spills can damage the airway of birds. damage to the animals immune system.

  1. [...] after his inaugural address, oil drilling in Alaska begins–as does a huge transformation in the area, socially, politically and [...]

  2. [...] Also, consider that Alaskan oil could reduce American oil imports by about 15% and American imports from the Middle East by over 25%. The effect of Alaskan oil on helping manage oil prices seems significant. But similar effect can be attained if Americans could reduce oil consumption simply by eliminating the SUV’s commercial vehicle exemptions from fuel efficiency standards, and by developing hybrid technologies, and by aggressively raising fuel efficiency requirements (source). [...]

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