By Carl Portman
At 19 million acres, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is as big as South Carolina and almost as big as Indiana. Located in Alaska’s Northeast corner, the refuge features striking mountain peaks which give way to a vast tundra coastal plain void of trees, but drained by streams and gullies into the Beaufort Sea.
Some 92 percent of this vast conservation unit is off-limits to development. Nearly half of the refuge (8 million acres) is federally designated Wilderness, the government’s most restrictive land classification.
But outside the Wilderness zone lies the 1.5 million acre Coastal Plain, an area representing about 8 percent of the refuge. This remote, windswept and frozen strip of land along the northernmost point of the refuge has become the focus of an intense national debate. Here lies geological structures that hint of tremendous oil reserves, perhaps as large as some of the great oil pools of Saudi Arabia. If major reserves are discovered, they could substantially improve America’s balance of payments and make the U.S. less reliant on foreign sources of oil.
After lengthy study, the Interior Department concluded in 1987 that the Coastal Plain was the nation’s best single opportunity to increase oil production and recommended leasing it to oil companies. However, environmentalists have vowed to keep oil companies from drilling even though exploration and development activities would utilize only a sliver of the vast refuge.
Environmentalists are pushing legislation in Washington to expand the Wilderness designation over the Coastal Plain, thereby blocking drilling. Their campaign has focused on emotionally compelling but inaccurate arguments, particularly that the Coastal Plain is unique and pristine. The lands considered for leasing account for two-thirds of the Coastal Plain, which itself is a small slice of the refuge. The other one-third of the plain, 400,000 acres, is already designated wilderness and is not being considered for leasing.
Moreover, the refuge is by no mean America’s last Wilderness. Less than 0.00004 of Alaska’s land area would be directly affected by ANWR development. Overall, there are 56 million acres of designated Wilderness in Alaska, more than enough to cover the entire state of Utah. None of it is being considered for oil leasing.
But where development has occurred, its impact has been minimized through advances in technology.
All of Prudhoe Bay’s gravel pads, gathering lines, production facilities, roads and other infrastructure occupy less than 6,000 acres of land. Prudhoe Bay is America’s largest oil field, accounting for some 20 percent of domestic production.
“Because of major advances on oil field technology and design, the ‘footprint’ of future energy development in the Arctic is becoming smaller and smaller,” said Mike Joyce, environmental sciences consultant with ARCO Alaska, Inc. Joyce stressed that alteration of land from development within ANWR will be minimal and disturbances to wildlife can be avoided in almost all cases.
The Congressional Office of Technology and Assessment estimates that oil production in ANWR would only require about 5,000 to 7,000 acres or about one half of one percent of ANWR, leaving over 99 percent of the land undisturbed.
“Given the major advances in arctic energy technology, petroleum operations today pose a far less serious threat to the environment than the critics claim,” Joyce noted. He said their objections fly in the face of modern energy development on the North Slope where the industry has learned a great deal from the early days of Prudhoe Bay development. Since oil production began at Prudhoe Bay in 1977, there have been no discernible adverse effects from energy operations on North Slope caribou, waterfowl and other wildlife,” Joyce said.
“The caribou of the Central Arctic herd haven’t been displaced by oil development,” Joyce said. “We still see caribou everywhere we used to, and they still use the same areas for the same reasons.”
When oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay, steps were taken to ensure that subsequent development would not deprive the Central Arctic herd of continued access to its summer range. The herd has grown more than six fold since oil development began.
According to the latest Interior Department estimates, there is nearly a 50 percent chance the refuge holds commercial quantities of oil. In the oil business, the average chance of discovering a major find in wildcat drilling is 2 percent. If commercial quantities are found in ANWR, Interior says they could amount to over 9 billion barrels.
With a discovery of this size, the Coastal Plain would produce an average of more than one million barrels of oil every day for at least 20 years with production peaking just below 2 million barrels per day by the year 2005. That level of production would place ANWR among the top eight oil producing nations in the world and make up about 20 percent of all domestic production.
However, environmentalists claim that of all the oil in ANWR would amount to only a few months supply of oil. Such an argument has proved popular among those who oppose development and offer conservation as the solution to the nation’s pressing energy problems.
The idea that oil from ANWR would last only a few months once developed is based on two impossible assumptions: 1) that the nation would stop using all oil except for supplies from the Coastal Plain until it was all used up and 2) that it would be possible to produce the nation’s entire oil daily consumption from one field.
Conservation and alternative energy are part of the solution to America’s energy problem, admits Brian Davies, Senior Vice President of Prudhoe Bay Unit. However, Davies stressed that America “isn’t going to conserve or windmill itself into a stable energy supply, at least not in the foreseeable future.”
Davies emphasized that Alaska can and must play a central role in reducing the nation’s reliance on foreign oil. The North Slope represents the area of highest oil potential anywhere in North America.
“The United States must adopt a coherent, comprehensive energy policy that promotes conservation, research and development of alternative fuels and new domestic oil production to facilitate an orderly transition to an economy that is less oil dependent,” Davies said.
However, the Prudhoe Bay executive warns that the best technology and most sincere efforts by consumers to conserve would still leave a sizable gap between the energy America requires and the oil it imports. To stem the rise in oil imports, the U.S. must not only improve energy conservation, but find more domestic oil supplies.
According to the Department of Energy, US. energy use will increase about 11 percent between 1988 and 2000, even with increased conservation. Despite increased energy efficiency, total consumption will be higher due to increased economic growth and declining oil production, which in itself wipes out projected savings from conservation.
Domestic oil production has been steadily declining and has fallen about 1.7 million barrels per day over l985 levels. The Department of Energy believes that the U.S. could be importing as much as two-thirds of the oil it uses by the year 2000. In 1990, oil imports accounted for 60 percent of the U.S. trade deficit.
If America relies only on conservation to compensate for declining production, it would have to cut its oil consumption by 4 million barrels per day over the next few years, according to the Energy Department. That’s about a quarter of current consumption. And that doesn’t do anything toward reducing the current level of imports.
To put that number in perspective, Americans would have to cut consumption twice as much as they did between 1973 and 1985. The social and economic consequences of curtailing consumption that much would be enormous.
U.S. dependence on foreign oil has been steadily increasing as a result of decreasing domestic production. And government policy is making the problem worse.
“Although federal lands offer some of the best prospects for major new petroleum discoveries, most of those prospects are off-limits to exploration” according to Stephen P. Chamberlain, Director of Exploration for the American Petroleum Institute.
“A major battle will have to be fought and won if ANWR is not to be put off-limits permanently before the nation even knows how much oil may be there:” Chamberlain said.
Wilderness designation over the richest oil field in north America would carry a big price tag, one which could lead to significant economic and national security consequences and compromise the future of Alaska’s economy.
“There’s a tendency of proponents of Wilderness to say that Wilderness is priceless,” said Dr. George Leaming of the Western Economic Analysis Center. “It isn’t. There’s a price.”
The price in ANWR’s case is enormous.
The economic analysis prepared by Western Econometrics Forecasting Associates estimates that ANWR development could raise the U.S. Gross National Product by $50.4 billion and crease employment nationwide by 735,000 jobs by the year 2005. The Interior Department estimates national economic benefits from ANWR production could reach $325 billion.
A Wilderness designation would not only deny economic growth, but would deny the nation up to 20 percent of its domestic oil production from an area less than one-eighth of one percent the refuge. It would also deny the U.S. the opportunity to cut oil imports tens of billions of dollars annually.
Extending Wilderness to cover the Coastal Plain would also cost the State of Alaska billions of dollars in lost revenues and opportunity. Oil production is the mainstay of Alaska’s economy, accounting for 87 percent of state government’s total income and 95 percent of its tax revenues.
Alaskans are concerned about a pending revenue crunch later this decade when Prudhoe Bay’s failing production translates into slumping state revenues. ANWR development could fill the revenue gap arising from declining Prudhoe production.
But if Congress blocks ANWR development, no oil revenues will flow from the refuge. State spending by public services will be far lower. This could bring sharp cuts to education, environmental oversight programs, and social services.
“Preserving our land as wilderness and maintaining quality environment costs money,” said North Slope Inupiat Eskimo Jacob Adams, President of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. “We can afford preservation if we have a healthy economy,” Adams continued. “A healthy economy in Alaska, however, the development of some of our most prospective energy resources.”
The Inupiat Eskimo people are subsistence hunters and users of the North Slope’s fish and wildlife resources.
“Our people have carefully observed oil and gas development at Prudhoe Bay and on the North Slope and its impact on fish and wildlife resources,” Adams noted. “It is our judgment, based upon close personal experience that we can have balanced and carefully regulated oil exploration and development on the Coastal Plain. We can preserve the environment and the resources or ANWR and still provide economic and energy security benefits to our people and the nation.”
Carl Portman was the Communications Director of the Resource Development Council for Alaska.
EDITOR’S COMMENT: This article was written in 1993, but its importance still exists. Any dollar estimates written are in 1993 dollars. Even today environmentalists will claim it would take ten years for production to get going. They’ve been saying the same thing for over twenty years.
You need to know the truth.
I am re-publishing it today because, since writing my book, I question the federal government’s Constitutional authority to stop any State from developing any of its land. If a claim is made that this is federal land I would then ask, WHY IS IT?
Make sure you check out “Some Facts About ANWR” listed under the “Environment” tab. It’s short and has pictures that are worth a thousand words.