Development ‘Footprint’ Would Hurt Refuge

Posted September 19, 2003 at 10:30am

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most magnificent wildlife reserves in North America. Initially set aside by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960 and expanded by Congress in 1980, it is a very special place — in the words of Justice William O. Douglas, “the most wondrous place on God’s Earth.”

While the entire refuge now contains 19.8 million acres, much of its rich wildlife is concentrated on a “coastal plain” tucked between

the wild, rugged, glacial peaks of the Brooks Range and the polar Beaufort Sea. This 1.5 million acre plain is considered “the biological heart of the refuge” because it is critical to the well-being of a unique caribou herd, as well as polar bears, Arctic foxes, wolverines and snow geese. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, it contains the greatest variety of plant and animal life of any conservation area in the circumpolar north.

Industrial development of the coastal plain will have a major impact on the existing ecosystem. Proponents of drilling assert that the “footprint” of oil development on the refuge will be small because drilling technology has improved, and they intend to use ice roads in the winter that melt in the summer.

In fact, the footprint of industrial development in the refuge is expected to adversely impact a much larger area — just look east 70 miles at Prudhoe Bay. The actual surface area of the infrastructure in Prudhoe Bay is approximately 12,000 acres, yet it sprawls across an area that exceeds 800 square miles. As the March 2003 National Academies report makes clear, the environmental consequences of drilling go well beyond the impact of the “footprint” itself. Current oil operations in Alaska’s North Slope include a toxic spill of oil, acid or salt water every day, and twice the nitrogen oxide pollution of Washington, D.C., every year. Moreover, every year oil development on the North Slope emits an estimated 110,000 tons of methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

In the Arctic Refuge, oil infrastructure is expected to sprawl across 130,000 to 303,000 acres — one-fifth of the entire area — including a huge pipeline, smaller feeder pipelines, drill pads, haul roads, gathering facilities, valves and so forth. And the often-touted ice roads require huge amounts of water, which does not occur in sufficient quantities on the refuge to support oil development. Moreover, seasonal ice roads are useful only in the winter for exploration, not year-round to support production. Once the development begins, haul roads would have to be built involving extensive gravel mining.

None of this is compatible with the purposes of the refuge to “protect unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational value.” Its pre-eminent value is that it remains one of the closest approximations of undisturbed, wholly intact, and fully functioning systems of natural ecological processes remaining on American soil.

Sacrificing this special place for a few months’ worth of oil seems particularly short-sighted, especially in light of the available alternatives.

The refuge has been set aside as a protected conservation area and is off-limits to the oil industry. In contrast, the National Petroleum Reserve (NPR-A), a 23 million-acre area that dwarfs the size of the refuge’s coastal plain, has been specifically set aside for oil and gas development for more than 80 years, and active exploration is occurring there now.

In June 2002, a second round of leasing in the NPR-A raised $63.8 million from the lease of almost 600,000 acres. In contrast, BP has mothballed its Badami field as of this August due to poor performance. The field, approximately 25 miles west of the Arctic Refuge border, produced just 5 percent of what was predicted.

The amount of “economically recoverable” oil considered likely to be found in the refuge is small compared to our daily consumption and cannot significantly reduce our dependence on foreign supplies of oil. We consume 25 percent of the world’s oil but control only 3 percent of the world’s reserves. Drilling in the refuge would only reduce our foreign oil dependence from 62 percent to 60 percent in 2020, according to the Energy Information Agency — which simply underlines the futility of trying to drill our way to energy independence.

But we are not helpless. We are the technological giant of the world, and we have untapped sources of supply in the form of increased efficiencies in the energy-consuming technologies consumers use every day. Fourteen years ago, the fleetwide average fuel economy of all new passenger vehicles sold in America was around 26.2 miles per gallon.

Today, our automobile fuel economy has actually gone backwards! The fleetwide average has fallen back to 24.5 mpg — levels last seen in 1981. If we increase our overall fuel economy by just the difference between these two numbers — 1.7 mpg — we will save more oil than is expected to be economically recoverable from the refuge.

In conclusion, lifting the prohibition on oil and gas development in this magnificent refuge is neither wise nor necessary.

If our current concern about energy supply becomes an excuse for the industry to lay claim to public treasures such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, we will have failed twice — we will remain just as dependent on oil for our energy future, and we will have hastened the demise of an incomparable natural wonder.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) is a member of the Energy and Commerce and Homeland Security committees.