Oil Drilling in the Arctic Refuge: Two Views
New lessons and new technology make risk negligible
THE Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), is the home to a wide array of northern species. Caribou, snow geese, sandpipers, and polar bears are only a few of the animals that live in the refuge, either seasonally or year-round. ANWR is also home to what could be one of the largest oil deposits in North America - oil that may be off limits due to the opposition of environmental groups that claim exploration would harm ANWR's delicate ecosystem.Many of America's tapped oilfields are nearly exhausted. Domestic oil production has declined 15 percent in the past two years, and oil imports account for more than half the US foreign trade deficit. Oil output at Prudhoe Bay, America's largest producing field, may fall to less than half its peak extraction rate in the next few years. As America continues to import nearly half its oil, it is imperative the US find new domestic sources of oil. ANWR would appear to be the perfect solution. The entire refuge, located on the eastern edge of Alaska's northern coast only 70 miles from Prudhoe Bay, represents only 5 percent of the state's land area. Government estimates predict that less than one-tenth of 1 percent of ANWR itself would be occupied by drilling and extraction installations, and these installations would all be centered in one region. Exploratory drilling is conducted from temporary installations. It is possible to conduct such operati ons solely during the winter months when the vast majority of ANWR's wildlife is further south and the permafrost layer can be shielded with ice pads. Such exploratory drilling poses no significant environmental threat. One would think that the potential for environmentally sound oil drilling would lead groups such as the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society to allow drilling in ANWR under federal supervision. After all, Audubon "wrote the book" on balancing oil extraction with environmental concern - based on three decades of experience with oil wells in wildlife preserves. These include the Paul J. Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary in Louisiana, the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Naples, Fla., and the Michigan Audubon Society's Bernard W. Baker Sanctuary in southern Michigan. No visitors are allowed in Rainey, but this sanctuary is not considered too sensitive to allow development of its hydrocarbon resources. Production continues there to this day from four wells. Not only has Audubon managed to balance the competing interests of oil exploration and the environment, but for every headline decrying an oil-related environmental disaster, there are plenty of ecologically sound oil development projects. For example, in Mobile Bay, Ala., a region stocked with shrimp, fish, and oysters, potentially hazardous liquids - ranging from chemical wastes to rainwater that drips off equipment - are collected in barrels and shipped to the mainland for proper disposal. These metho ds were developed after extensive research into what are the most common forms of pollution from oil development. The Mobile Bay platforms prove that environ- mental degradation need not accompany hydrocarbon development. In fact, methods to prevent compromising the environmental quality of Alaska's North Slope are already being developed. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC), for one, has highlighted ways to prevent seepage and waste mismanagement that has occurred with previous Alaskan oil developments. ADEC is confident that these methods can safeguard the Alaskan environment. It should also be noted that many of these methods are already utilized in other oil developments including both Audubon's Rainey Sanctuary and the more recent North Slope developments. It is impossible to deny that some oil developments have had negative impacts. But simply because oil developers have not always protected the environment does not mean that they cannot or will not. With the advent of new technology, such as that which allows directional drilling or prevents the escape of potentially dangerous wastes, oil development has become a much cleaner and safer practice. Were this not the case one could be certain that Audubon would not have allowed oil development on its own lan d. The proper application of technology and human ingenuity can reconcile the apparently conflicting needs for environmental quality and natural resource development. Audubon learned this lesson 30 years ago. It is time the federal government did as well.