TCS Daily

War and ANWR: Facts vs. Fictions

By Sallie Baliunas - November 12, 2001 12:00 AM

Sorting fact from fiction in the debate over oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska has become easier recently. Just look at who has actors to do their talking and you'll know who's telling tall tales.

Members of the Natural Resources Defense Council are getting e-mails from Robert Redford asking them to urge members of Congress to oppose the energy bill supported by President Bush. Redford claims the bill would open not only the ANWR to drilling but also "pave the way for energy companies to exploit and destroy pristine areas of Greater Yellowstone and other gems of our natural heritage." And last month, Martin Sheen, the fictional president in the Emmy award winning The West Wing, put out an ad for the Alaska Wildlife League in which he asks, "The Arctic Refuge, is it worth destroying forever, for six months of oil?"

Sentimentally buffeted by such charming leading men, who wouldn't oppose the president's energy measure? The answer: Anyone who prefers to deal with the facts, and anyone who must face squarely the nation's economic, energy and security needs.

The economy, despite using energy with twice the efficiency of 40 years ago, still relies and will rely on oil and other fossil fuels for growth for the next several decades. More than four-fifths of the nation's energy needs are met by fossil fuels. And oil -- at an equivalent of 20 million barrels consumed per day -- meets 40% of America's energy needs, and represents the single largest component of the energy supply.

One problem for this nation is that much of its oil and natural gas resources are on federal lands. In the last two decades, at the urging of environmentalists, the government has reduced federal lands available to development by 60%.

At the same time, the country is more reliant than ever on foreign sources of oil. According to the Energy Information Administration, as domestic oil production last year fell to its lowest point since 1950, imports met 57% of demand. Fortunately, much of that oil comes from reliably safe areas, such as Canada and Mexico. But 22% is imported from the Persian Gulf, including 14% from Saudi Arabia, which in the current shockwave of terrorism is having to placate Islamic radicals in its own midst.

It is within this energy framework that recovery of ANWR's Coastal Plain oil must be viewed. So what are the facts there?

Don't Know Much About History...

First, let's look at the history of ANWR. It's been considered a repository of oil resources since oil seepage - yes, Mother Nature spills oil, too - along the Alaskan northern coastline indicated the presence of reserves there. Then, during World War II, the federal government reserved the area of the coastline to roughly the continental divide for national security uses, including oil.

Conservation concerns for the region led the government to designate 8.9 million acres of Alaska's northern coastal area near the border with Canada as the Arctic National Wildlife Range in 1960. An area about four times the size to the west of the range was opened for multiple uses, including commercial oil and gas exploration. Not until 1980 did the government finally designate the range named ANWR and only after including surrounding land that doubled its scope as wilderness.

In creating the 19 million-acre wildlife refuge - an area the size of South Carolina -- Congress specifically withheld from immediate wilderness designation the coastal portion of ANWR, precisely because of the potential for future oil development.

Tiny Footprints

Area 1002, as it is called, is a flat featureless plain of about 1.5 million acres, the size of Delaware. It provides a calving ground for the Porcupine Caribou Herd in the spring and summer months,. It is home to a non-native, imported herd of muskoxen that stay year round. And it has dens used in winter for both polar bears and grizzlies.

While some environmentalists describe the coastal plain as the Serengeti of America, it is hardly "pristine." Native Inupiat lands and state holdings are included in the plain. It is part of the Defense Early Warning System -- DEW line - that provided the nation a radar screen against early missile attack. Roads and airfields have been cut into it already, and it has recovered.

Rather than "destroy" the ANWR "forever," oil recovery allowed under proposed legislation opening up the refuge would be fairly limited. It would be more intelligent than earlier incursions and hardly more damaging. The legislation authorizing exploration specifically would require that it cause no significant environmental impact. Not only would drilling be limited to the 8% of ANWR encompassed in Area 1002, but also it would be done on barely a tenth of a percent of that. New drilling technology makes it possible to build drill pads that are a fourth as large as those required in 1977 and spaced at intervals four times as far apart. Thus, in a sanctuary of 1.5 million acres, a bare 2,000 are likely to be needed for oil recovery.

Would this tiny footprint really threaten wildlife there? One of the primary interests is caribou - a herd of about 130,000 now calves on the coastal plain during spring and summer months. Oil development, though, would only occur in the winter months, when the caribou had migrated southward in to Canada.

History of oil recovery in other parts of Alaska also suggests little danger. Consider the Central Plain Herd that roams the more western area encompassing Prudhoe Bay. The 1960 reorganization of the North Slope opened Prudhoe Bay for exploration. In 1968 Prudhoe Bay emerged as the richest North American oil field. Since development began, the size of the caribou herd that occupies the oil field area has not decreased - it has more than quadrupled.

Yes, the size of the herd has had swings of population encompassing several years. In the 1990s, according to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, the Western Range Herd that migrates through the oil fields dropped by over 50% between 1992 and 1995. But two years later it increased by 60%, and returned to its 1990s population by the year 2000. Similar variations in different patterns happened to the Eastern Range caribou population. What happened to the herds? The key factors include herd migration, winter severity, overpopulation, disease outbreaks and predator population, not oil recovery.

Impacts on other animals may occur. Some studies indicate that drilling activity could disturb polar bears that go to their dens in winter and muskoxen that inhabit the plain in that period. But the Interior Department can set aside acreage within the range to protect bear dens, and the bears are also found in other areas where human activity occurs. And the muskoxen, it must be recalled, were introduced into the refuge and have increased in number owing to human efforts. Neither the bears nor the muskoxen are on the endangered species list.

A Question of National Security

Oil developers working in concert with government officials can mitigate real threats. What can't be overcome are blanket bans that deprive the nation's energy needs both for its economy and security.

How much oil might be retrieved from the Coastal Plain? While environmentalists would like to claim it amounts to a mere six-month supply, the proper comparison is how much imported oil it could displace, and so reduce the nation's vulnerability to disruptions to imported oil.

On that score, Coastal Plain recovery could reduce dependence on imports by about 8%. According to a 1998 U.S. Geological Survey, the range of recoverable oil in ANWR is from 5.7 billion to 16 billion barrels at an assumed cost of $24 a barrel. And last year, oil prices reached as high as $34 a barrel, and averaged more than $25 a barrel. The mid-range estimate of recoverable oil, according to USGS, would be sufficient to replace imports from Iraq for 20 years. By then new technology should be moving the nation well away from oil.

Lesser dependence on unstable sources equals more security for U.S. consumers. It increases the likelihood of stable supplies in the future.

Improved technology combined with economic and national security needs have brought oil retrieval from the Coastal Plain of ANWR back to center stage. But Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, working in concert with Sen. Jim Jeffords, has stalled consideration of the energy bill before the Senate due to concerns over ANWR. Despite their efforts, sound energy policy now calls for developing and exploring the Coastal Plain - as Congress approved back in 1995 before President Clinton vetoed that action. It also means disregarding old fictions about dangers that modern drilling technology minimizes.


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