Drilling for Oil on the Coastal Plain, ANWR, Alaska.

Hiker hiking on the coastal plain near the Canning River, Brooks Range, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.

Hey Folks,

As it hits the news again here in Alaska today, I thought I’d post about the current proposal to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This post is from an earlier version on my other website, Expeditions Alaska. The photo above is a buddy of mine hiking on the coastal plain near the Canning River, Section 1002, of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). I presume most readers here have heard something about this, so I’ll skip the introductions, and go straight to my arguments here. I’m not a big fan of arguing by numbers, but we can discuss the ANWR issue with “facts” if you care to: in doing so, it might be interesting to approach this issue by first looking at, and dismantling, the arguments of proponents of drilling. Next month I’ll look at some other reasons, probably more important, IMO, why we need to be as active as we can in our opposition to proposed legislation. First, a look at the typical arguments put forward by those in favor of drilling:

1. National Security, dependence from Middle East foreign oil & the US is ‘better off’ if we drill our own oil.

The US currently buy nearly 70% of the oil we consume. Canada leads the way providing 17% of imports. Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Venezuela all provide 13-14% of the oil consumed in the US. Nigeria is next at 8%. In 2002, the Persian Gulf region accounted for less than 20% of total US oil imports. Iraq accounted for 4%, and Kuwait less than 2%. The US consumes 25% of the world’s oil, but has only 3% of the known oil reserves. It’s easy to see here that those proposing to drill for oil in the interests of National Security, of protecting America from Middle East terrorism, are at best, misguided and misleading the public. They have access to the same information I do, so I can only assume they’re lying. The BEST case for drilling is that, for a short while, our dependence on foreign oil will be reduced from 70 percent to 66%, possibly by the year 2015.

A pertinent question then is, how is anything a step towards making the US self-reliant on energy if the capacity to do so is simply not available ?

Secondly, note the term ‘our oil’. It’s a far cry from ‘our oil’. If it were, I’d go get some. But I can’t, because it doesn’t belong to me. It doesn’t belong to you either. In fact, when drilled, it won’t even belong to the US Govt. It’ll belong to whomever drills it – at this point, that looks most likely to be Exxon, the same folks who spilled around 40 000 tonnes of crude oil near Valdez — another article, perhaps?) People all over the world own shares in Exxon. Nothing in the bills have stipulated the oil be sold in the US. Whether the oil drilled in the Wildlife Refuge is sold overseas or sold in the US is irrelevant. You, I, your next door neighbor nor anyone else will be any better off (unless, of course you or your neighbor own shares in Exxon, or whomever else purchases the drilling rights). If the US legislates that oil drilled on US land must be consumed in the US, then that same right should be afforded other countries. Imagine the outrage if Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and all the the other countries who provide the US with nearly 70% of the oil consumed here were to enact similar legislation.

Further evidence of the deception: If this argument above were a ‘real’ consideration, President Bush would not have just made a deal with Senator Martinez to NOT drill off the Florida Gulf coast. This deal was made to garner Martinez’ crucial vote for the pro-drilling legislation in the Arctic refuge.

Lastly, the very real threat posed by terrorism on the Alaskan Pipeline would only be increased if we become more reliant on the aging pipeline. In 2001, 285,600 gallons of oil spilled into several acres of forest after an intoxicated local fired a rifle into the pipeline. 50% chance of finding enough oil in ANWR to meet national demand for 9 months (other groups predict 6 months)

65% potential increase in vehicle efficiency using current technology; that could cut US oil use by 1.5 million barrels per day within a decade.

2. The footprint, at 2000 acres, is .1% of the Wildlife Refuge.

The area open to drilling is nearly 10% of the entire Wildllife Refuge, and the coastal plain designated is the most biodiverse region in the arctic. And what constitutes the ‘footprint’ is very misleading. For example, the footprint at Prudhoe Bay is 12 000 acres. However, this does not include any land entrapped by fencing, roadways, buildings, wells and other infrastructure, etc that is not DIRECTLY covered. The total land affected and imposed upon by the drilling there stands at 640 000 acres. Further, absolutely NOTHING ensures that the ‘footprint’ cannot extend further than that stipulated 2000 acres once drills are in place. Rest assured, once drilling is engaged, the minute the developers demand access to more land to drill, they’ll be allowed to. Also, the 2000 acres is not contiguous. the USGS has found that, “the oil is expected to occur in a number of accumulations rather than a single large accumulation.” They are allowed to drill ANYWHERE on the coastal plain, and build whatever roads, water reservoirs, etc they need to in order to feasibly drill.The impact of such a proposal will extend far far beyond a mere 2000 acres. Networks of pipelines and roads obviously would fragment wildlife habitat.

The footprint predicted in the CRS report, (p78) would be smaller than the nearly 6000 acres predicted in the FLEIS report of 1987, but only slightly so, with a possible demand for even more acreage devoted to some features such as marine and saltwater treatment facilities and small permanent airfields). There is NO indication that Congress would stipulate that footprint cannot be enlarged if the ‘developers’ should choose to do so. America’s congressionally designated Wilderness areas constitute only 4.4 percent of the entire U.S., including Alaska.

95% the area of Alaska’s costal plain already open to potential oil and gas development
5% the remainder of Alaska’s costal plain – included in ANWR – being considered for development.

3. Drilling won’t affect the caribou.

Female caribou productivity around the North Slope, particularly around Prudhoe Bay, have declined since oil production began. Caribou in the Wildlife Refuge will be more directly affected, and the decline is expected to be even greater. The 1987 Legislative Impact Study describing the potential impact of oil and gas development submitted to Congress predicted major effects on caribou and muskox populations, and moderate effects on wolves, wolverine, polar bears, snow geese, seabirds and shorebirds, arctic grayling and coastal fish. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report for Congress on ANWR: Background and Issues (May 2003) concludes that the situation remains the same as it did in 1987. USGS scientists studying the effect on caribou calving in the area concluded “a substantial reduction in calf survival would be expected under full development of the 1002 area.” (USGS Wildlife Research Studies, 2002, p31.).
Furthermore, it’s not at all reasonable to assume the same conditions and effects for ANWR as the Prudhoe Bay situation; “the coastal plain in Section 1002 is MUCH narrowed, meaning displaced wildlife must adapt to a a very different environment (more predation, less refuge from mosquito and insect bites, a major source of health problems) than the broader area of Prudhoe Bay, Secondly, conditions have changed since P. Bay development began nearly 30 years ago: winters tend to be milder, tundra thaws earlier and freezes later, and vegetation patterns have already begun to change in response to these changes. Animal life is expected to respond to these changes sooner or later” (CRS Report for Congress, May 2003, p58).

The caribou are but one species in an incredibly rich ecosystem. The snow geese, the owls, the falcons, the 3 species of bears, the wolves, the wolverines, the MuskOx, and on and on are all a web of life that is merely a shadow of what once existed across North America. Nowhere else on the continent does an ecosystem remain that is so ancient, so pristine and wild, that it allows us to truly glimpse what ‘nature’ actually is. Additional investigations since 1987 substantiate the fact that water in the 1002 area is very limited and the impact upon water resources should be considered major.”

50 – 75% of Porcupine herd calves born in the Costal Plain area. After calving, the entire herd uses the costal plain for foraging and insect relief.

4. Oil spills are becoming less likely, and have less impact.

Just a brief glance at what happened 15 years ago in Prince William Sound denies any authenticity here. Close to 300 sea otters, at least 300 harbor seals, 22 orcas and probably a quarter million seabirds died as a result of one oil spill. From Prudhoe Bay, 1.3 million gallons of 40 different substances ranging from acid waste to oil have been spilled between 1996 and 1999. Studies show that even 30 years after deisel spills in the arctic, vegetation does not recover, and hydrocarbons are still in the air, evidence that wildlife in the area will be threatened. The current rate of reportable spills on Alaska¹s North Slope is about one per every 18 hours.

5. Limited environmental impact of newer technologies.

Ice road construction requires 1.35 million gallons of water per mile. It takes 30,000 gallons of water per day to support an oil drill rig – as much as 15 million gallons may be required to drill one exploratory well. In 1995 the USFWS found that water in the 1002 area is very limited and impacts upon water resources should be considered major. At the time of maximum ice development, only 9 million gallons of water are available in 237 miles of river across the coastal plain – enough to build and maintain only 6.6 miles of ice road. Gravel roads may be necessary. Ice mining and water diversion from lakes and rivers results in an increased depth of freezing, which kills invertebrates important to fish and waterbirds.

200 days/year that vehicles were permitted to travel over tundra permafrost in 1960.
100 days/year that vehicles are permitted to travel over permafrost in 2004; reduction attributed to climate change.

6. To help bring oil prices down.

This is a lie. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge might possibly yield 1% of world oil production. Such relatively minimal supply would, in real terms, have no net effect on prices. Oil prices are set, almost solely, by OPEC. Known US reserves constitutes 2.8% of the world’s oil, and hence we’re relatively powerless to influence prices. Secondly, to repeat, there is a 1995 law that permits exporting Alaskan North Slope oil to overseas countries. Oil companies systematically jacked up West Coast oil prices long ago by exporting Alaskan crude to Asia for less than it could have sold the oil to US refineries. For example, in 1977, when the Alaskan pipeline was first opened up, the industry claimed we see lower oil prices. In fact, between 1977 and 1981, gasoline prices more than doubled, while millions of barrels of Alaskan oil were being pumped.

7. The “will” of the people.

Polls consistently show a majority of Americans do not support opening the Wildlife Refuge to drilling.

8. Jobs

The Wharton Econometric Forecasting Associates (WEFA) put together a study in 1990 proposing that 700 000 jobs would be generated nationwide. This study has been discredited by many independent analyses. Jobs generated would be significantly less, largely because of predictions by WEFA on how lower world oil prices would stimulate the economy. For a detailed look at this, visit NRDC on Jobs. Further, what this argument does is carefully sidestep the issue that research into alternative energy sources will create many new jobs, and be equally economically viable, as well as providing a future for a healthy planet. The Alaska Conservation Foundation recently released a study Prepared by UAA’s Institute of Social and Economic Research showing that Alaska’s healthy environment provides six times more direct jobs than the petroleum industry, and more than twice the direct employment opportunities of the petroleum, mining and construction industries combined.

This material is a little dated at the moment but the principle hasn’t really changed at all. I’ll try to get some newer stuff online soon.




19 thoughts on “Drilling for Oil on the Coastal Plain, ANWR, Alaska.

  1. Mark

    I might add to number 7 that this thing has already been voted down what…2 or 3 times in a number of different bills? I don’t get it – why does this keep coming up for a vote? It really makes you think the process is so corrupt it will continue to be voted on until someone gets the result they want or able to sneak something in when people are not paying attention.

    It really makes you wonder what is the REAL reason behind all of this. One could suspect the obvious of $$$, and perhaps it is as simple as that with oil prices per barrel at historical highs.

    These are a lot of great facts Carl and for summarizing them so clearly here.

  2. Musa

    Below the radar and while the debate over ANWR rages on, I for one, am more concerned about the recent Chukchi Sea Lease sale. Truly, an oil spill in ANWR would be horrific and have implications, but at least it could, to a greater or lesser degree, be cleaned up because it is a land based operation, the spills of the past year, albeit minor, did little damage. The Chukchi Lease Sale is a different issue, the drilling would be at Sea, the probability of a spill over the life of the project may approach as high as 45 % according to the MMS EIS and there is no technology that exists that cleans oil out of sea ice… just my 2c….

  3. Carl Donohue

    Hey Mark,

    Thanks for posting, man. The proposal to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been voted down, or struck down, in Congress a number of times. They put it up for vote just about every year now. The problem then is it merely becomes a political power struggle – those in favor propose it again and again for the so-called ‘coup’ of being the one to get it through, and those against deny it because it they don’t want to concede to the other side – I’m almost certain most of the folks who vote it against it would probably turn right around vote for it if the other side changed their tact – the whole thing is a circus.

    It’s obviously about money – the volume of oil their isn’t significant, in real terms, to the American economy, but it would be to the Alaskan economy, for sure. Now how much if the benefit stays ‘in house’ and how much is outsourced is another questions.

    Hey Musa,

    Thanks for the note about the Chuckchi Sea Lease. Perhaps you could share some more information about that particular situation, as I’m sure a number of readers here know little about it.




  4. Pingback: The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. - Stock Photos - Skolai Images

  5. Debbie Miller

    Does anyone know, or can anyone tell me where to find out, how much oil taken from the ground in the U.S. is sold overseas? With the price of gas record high, wouldn’t that be an interesting fact?

    Why doesn’t Congress do something about the fact that oil companies are reporting record profits while I’m showing a record deficit in my budget?

    I’ve written more letters and sent more emails to Washington vetoing drilling in ANWR that I could probably buy a tank of gas with the cost in postage – and now I need to do it again. Even my 3 year old granddaughter understands the word no.

  6. Carl Donohue

    Hey Debbie

    Thanks for your great post. I had to laugh at your closing statement, how true!!! 🙂
    I’m not sure the answer to your question about oil sold o/seas versus oil sold here – I understand most oil is considered a fungible commodity, and so they don’t restrict where’s sold. I believe the last few proposals to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have included a clause that says the oil must not be sold overseas, simply to prop up the proposal and garner some support. The big deal, of course, is that it wouldn’t make a dent in our oil import/export balance even if all the oil from there is consumed locally.

    I agree with you about Congress’ responsibility to consider record profits in an industry that is largely contributing to economic hardship and ever decreasing disposable income for the general populace. Perhaps if we had an administration who were not all ex-oil people, we might have a different situation at the moment.



  7. Beth Lunsford

    Hi Carl & everybody. You know, Mark may have something there about them trying to sneak this through , the way Diane Feinstein just tried to ” sneak through legislation as an earmark, so to speak, on a AG immagration bill. The government is so corrupt at times. It’s only a matter of time. Alaska wants it for their economy. If McCain were to win the Presidency, he says he wouldn’t open it up anymore than he would the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. But that’s probably hype, just like his global warming stance. I may be wrong. But what politician can you really believe anymore? It did get voted down this year, but like Mark said in so many words, it’s probably only temporary because they will keep pushing it. Especially since Alaskan politicians want it so bad. You know, polar bear mothers’ are mostly making their dens on land now. What does that say?

  8. Jim Patriot

    Tree Hugger,

    Neat site and pretty pictures. How did you get there walk? I doubt it, you rode in an airplane and burnt lots of gas, rode in a nice SUV, and warmed your supper with LP all burning more gas. Why don’t you want someone like me to have gas to save human lives. You guys have yet to offer any solutions you just don’t want the rest of America to have any thing. In America you don’t have to buy gas if you don’t want to, but some of us need it to do something useful, like fuel police cars, firetrucks, ambulances and helicopters to save lives. by you being in the way you make it harder and more expensive to do our job. Enjoy the rise in cost for your healthcare.

  9. Carl Donohue

    Hello Jim,

    Thanks for your comment.

    Trust me, the irony of the situation doesn’t escape me. Not just the oil used to get to the Refuge (though I didn’t ride in a SUV, but my small 4-cylinder pickup), but also the products used on the trip: synthetic materials such as plastics, gore-tex, nylon, etc are all a products of oil. I’m well aware of my oil consumption, and I do make efforts to keep it to a minimum. But your argument here is rooted in the premise that there are no alternatives, which is not the case, and also that opening places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to gas and oil extraction will make a real difference in, for example, the price we pay at the pump for gasoline. Have you read the recent study, called for my Sen. Ted Stevens (R. – Alaska), that suggested drilling in the refuge would MAYBE lower the price of oil by $0.75 a barrel, or $0.02 a gallon. So 2 cents a gallon difference in the price, 10 years from now. That, to me, is not worth the damage it will inevitably bring. The US simply does not have the oil supply to feed its consumption. That fact alone points to the root of the problem: we’re living on credit. To use your argument, ‘why don’t you want someone like you 50 years from now to have gas to save human lives’? What right do you or I have to consume all the oil in existence and leave nothing for future generations? It’s exactly the same thing you’re submitting above.



  10. Carl Donohue

    Hey John,

    That’s not ‘the real ANWR” – those are just bad photos. I’ve got a number of images on my website I’ve taken in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in Section 1002, here.

    By the way, I edited your post to make the link more user friendly – but it’s the same link.



  11. Julie Kazabi

    I’ve recently started a blog, and the information you provide on this site has helped me tremendously. Thank you for all of your time & work. cheers!

  12. thoughts on environment

    This is a question we must figure out on our own, and I’ve spent a few years on it, with the following entirely personal conclusions: my identity feels stable and still despite circumstances. I used to unconsciously attach a sense of identity to certain ideas and objects (my jacket, my mother, my voice, etc) but stopped doing that after many silent vipassana retreats, as I got to know my experience stream very intimately. Now my identity remains still and stable as always but it is simply the capacity for noticing. My identity (what I am in my still center) is aware of the story but is not the story or even any part of any story I can know.

  13. wildlife environment

    For your purposes, probably an SLR with mirror lock-up capability. Shoot on Fuji Velvia film for great colors. It’s what many pros still shoot for nature magazine work. And film is far better at night as there are no noise issues.

  14. Tom Brennan

    Hi Carl,

    I’m doing a paper on this subject right now for my environmental economics class, and you’ve made some really great points in this post. I was wondering if you could help me out with some references for those figures in point number 5. I would like to use that in my argument.

    thanks a lot!


  15. Carl D Post author

    Hey Folks,

    Gary – I’m not really familiar with that particular situation, so I don’t have any comment there.

    Tom – I posted this here in 2008, and actually wrote it years earlier for another article, and I don’t have any of the references with me any more, sorry. I’m sure they’re not too hard to find though. A great place to start is the CRS report mentioned above. Good luck with the paper.



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