Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

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Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Beyond the jagged Brooks Range in Alaska's far northeastern corner lies one of the world's largest nature preserves, the 19.8-million acre (8-million ha) Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). A narrow strip of treeless coastal plain in the heart of the refuge presents one of nature's grandest spectacles, as well as one of the longest-running environmental battles of the past century. For a few months during the brief arctic summer, the tundra teems with wildlife . This is the calving ground of the 130,000 caribou of the Porcupine herd, which travels up to 400 mi (640 km) each summer to graze and give birth along the Arctic Ocean shore. It also is important habitat for tens of thousands of snow geese, tundra swans, shorebirds and other migratory waterfowl; a denning area for polar bears, arctic foxes and arctic wolves ; and a year-round home to about 350 shaggy musk ox. In wildlife density and diversity, it rivals Africa's Serengeti.

When Congress established the Wildlife Refuge in 1980, a special exemption was made for about 600,000 ha (1.5 million acres) of coastline between the mountains and the Beaufort Sea where geologists think sedimentary strata may contain billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas . Called the 1002 area for the legislative provision that put it inside the wildlife refuge but reserved the right to drill for fossil fuels , this narrow strip of tundra may be the last big, on-shore, liquid petroleum field in North America. It also is critical habitat for one of the richest biological communities in the world. The possibility of extracting the fossil fuels without driving away the wildlife and polluting the pristine landscape is supported by oil industry experts and disputed by biologists and environmentalists.

The amount of oil and gas beneath the tundra is uncertain. Only one seismic survey has been done and a few test wells drilled. Industry geologists claim that there may be 16 billion barrels of oil under ANWR, but guessing the size and content of the formation from this limited evidence is as much an art as a science. Furthermore, the amount of oil it's economical to recover depends on market prices and shipping costs. At current wholesale prices of $25 per barrel, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 7 billion barrels might be pumped profitably. If prices drop below $10 per barrel, as they did in the early 1990s, the economic resource might be only a few hundred million barrels.

Energy companies are extremely interested in ANWR because any oil found there could be pumped out through the existing Trans-Alaska pipeline , thus extending the life of their multibillion-dollar investment. The state of Alaska hopes that revenues from ANWR will replenish dwindling coffers as the oil supply from near-by Prudhoe Bay wells dry up. Automobile companies, tire manufacturers, filling stations, and others who depend on our continued use of petroleum argue that domestic oil supplies are rapidly being depleted, leaving the United States dependent on foreign countries for more than half of its energy consumption.

Oil drilling proponents point out that prospecting will occur only in winter when the ground is covered with snow and most wildlife is absent or hibernating. Once oil is located, they claim, it will take only four or five small drilling areas, each occupying no more than a few hundred hectares, to extract it. Heavy equipment would be hauled to the sites during the winter on ice roads built with water pumped from nearby lakes and rivers. Each two-meter-thick, gravel drilling pad would hold up to 50 closely spaced wells, which would penetrate the permafrost and then spread out horizontally to reach pockets of oil up to 6 mi (10 km) away from the wellhead. A central processing facility would strip water and gas from the oil, which would then be pumped through elevated, insulated pipelines to join oil flowing from Prudhoe Bay.

Opponents of this project argue that the noise, pollution , and construction activity accompanying this massive operation will drive away wildlife and leave scars on the landscape that could last for centuries. Pumping the millions of gallons of water needed to build ice roads could dry up local ponds on which wildlife depends for summer habitat. Every day six to eight aircraftsome as big as the C-130 Herculeswould fly into ANWR. The smell of up to 700 workers and the noise of numerous trucks and enormous power-generating turbines, each as large and loud as a jumbo aircraft engine, would waft out over the tundra. Pointing to the problems of other Arctic oil drilling operations where drilling crews dumped garbage , sewage, and toxic drilling waste into surface pits, environmentalists predict disaster if drilling is allowed in the refuge. Pipeline and drilling spills at Prudhoe Bay have contaminated the tundra and seeped into waterways. And scars from bulldozer tracks made 50 years ago can still be seen clearly today. John Adams, President of the Natural Resources Defense Council claims that the once pristine wildlife habitat of Prudhoe Bay has become a toxic, industrial wasteland.

Oil companies planning to drill in ANWR, on the other hand, claim that old, careless ways are no longer permitted in their operations. Wastes are collected and either burned or injected into deep wells. Although some animals do seem to have been displaced at Prudhoe Bay, the Central Arctic herd with 27,000 caribou is five times larger now than it was in 1978 when drilling operations began there. But in ANWR the Porcupine herd has five times as many animals crowded into one-fifth the area and may be much more sensitive to disturbance than their cousins to the west.

Native people are divided on this topic. The coastal Inupiat people, many of whom work in the oil fields, support opening the refuge to oil exploration. They hope to use their share of the oil revenues to build new schools and better housing. The Gwich'in people, who live south of the refuge, would gain nothing from oil exploitation. They worry that migrating caribou on which they depend might be decline as a result of drilling on critical calving grounds.

Even if ANWR contains seven billion barrels of oil, it will take at least a decade to begin to get it to market and the peak production rate will probably be about one million barrels of oil per day in 2030. Flow from the 1002 area would then meet less than 4% of the U.S. daily oil consumption. Improving the average fuel efficiency of all cars and light trucks in America by just one mile per gallon would save more oil than is ever likely to be recovered from ANWR, and it would do so far faster and cheaper than extracting and transporting crude oil from the arctic. Cutting our fossil fuel consumption also is vital if we are to avoid catastrophic global climate change.

In 1995, Congress passed a budget that included a provision to allow drilling in ANWR, but President Bill Clinton vetoed the bill. In 2002, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives once again passed an energy bill that authorized oil and gas exploration in ANWR. President Bush strongly supported this bill and promised to sign it if given an opportunity. The Senate energy bill, however, rejected ANWR drilling by a vote of 54 to 46, and the measure was abandoned by its sponsors.

Undoubtedly, this debate won't disappear anytime soon. With a potential of billions of dollars to be made from oil and gas formations, the industry won't give up easily. For many conservatives, this issue has become a matter of principle. They believe we have both a right and a duty to exploit the resources available to us. Environmental groups feel equally strongly about the value of wildlife, wilderness , and one of the "last remaining great places" in the world. Protecting this harsh but beautiful land garnered more donations and public passions than any other environmental issue in the past decade. Clearly, how we decide to manage ANWR will be a landmark in environmental history .

[William P. Cunningham ]



Lentfer, Hank and Carolyn Servid, eds. Arctic Refuge: A Circle of Testamony. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Press, 2001.


Gibbs, W. Wayt. "The Arctic Oil & Wildlife Refuge." Scientific American 284(2001): 62-69.

Miller, Debbie S. "Ground Zero" The Amicus Journal 23(2001): 29-34.

McGrath, Susan. "The last great wilderness." Audubon 103(2001): 52-65.

Rauber, Paul. "Snake Oil for Fossil Fools." Sierra 88(2001): 56-61,86-87.