The Alaskan Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) first received federal protection in 1960, when President Eisenhower called on the nation to safeguard its “unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values.” The decision was based on decades of research by conservationists. In 1980, under President Carter, congress enlarged the refuge and designated much of it as federal wilderness, which prohibits any human settlement. However, the 1980 designation left one stretch of coastal land, between the Brooks Range and the Beaufort Sea, in the hands of congress to decide whether to ultimately allow drilling. That decision, which has been called the “great compromise,” left the matter unsettled for decades – until the GOP passed their tax bill earlier this month, which included a provision opening the area for drilling leases.
Today, the ANWR is one of the largest unspoiled areas of wilderness on the planet. It’s 19.6 million acres are home to the state’s most dense population of increasingly beleaguered polar bears, as well as the famously huge Porcupine River caribou herd. In spring, the caribou travel 400 miles to their breeding ground on the coast, the same area the tax bill just opened for oil drilling. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the herd numbers 197,000 caribou. And this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ANWR’s natural value.
In 1953, National Park Service scientist George Collins wrote in the Sierra Club Bulletin:
“This area offers what is virtually America’s last chance to preserve an adequate sample of the pioneer frontier, the Stateside counterpart of which has vanished.”
According to non-profit group The Wilderness Society, which was involved in the initial push to protect ANWR in the 50s, oil drilling would harm wildlife and the environment in a range of ways.
Noise pollution and traffic would disrupt habitats and migration routes for mammals and birds. The spilling of oil itself, as well as frequently spilled and harmful drilling fluid, would become an ever-present threat. Offshore oil spills can damage the vital organs of wildlife, cause cancer and reproductive failure, and cause a domino effect of ecological changes. Construction of the necessary infrastructure strips the environment of vegetation, increases erosion, and other damage with a ripple effect throughout the ecosystem.
On December 19th, the tax bill quietly ended almost 40 years of a debate which has divided politicians, environmentalists, indigenous Alaskans, and of course, oil companies, over the future of the refuge. In 1968, oil was discovered on Alaska’s north slope. The US Geological Survey has estimated the land could hold between 4.3 and 11.8 billion barrels of recoverable oil. However, they project only a five percent likelihood for the higher figure, and critics of drilling question the data altogether, according to a recent National Geographic report, by Joel K. Bourne, Jr.
Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society, argued:
“The numbers don’t add up whatsoever. The whole notion that you are going to trim a trillion-dollar deficit with phony oil revenue is just a cynical political ploy. This is a backdoor gimmick done in the dark of the night to achieve a political goal at the expense of a place this country has protected for half a century. The majority of Americans don’t want to see ANWR industrialized.”
Proponents of drilling, such as Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, contend that the economic benefit of drilling far outweighs the actual damage to the environment. She has said of the projected one billion dollars of income over ten years, that “none of this comes at the expense of the environment.”
But that argument presents an incomplete picture of the revenue, and ignores the evidence when it comes to environmental damage. The $1.1 billion figure, from a Congressional Budget Office projection, would compensate for less than one tenth of the bill’s $1.5 trillion-dollar tax cut itself. And to even achieve that figure, the two leases discussed in the bill would each need to earn $2,750 per acre, ten times the amount that other lease sales on the rest of Alaska’s north slope have averaged. Bids for leases in the region this month reached only $15 per acre.
An even loftier figure of $100 billion in federal revenues over decades, cited by Murkowski and the Trump administration, rests on assumptions such as rising oil prices, and that the area in question contains at least 7 billion barrels, both of which are far from certain. The USGS estimates are based on dated figures from the 1980s. More recent analysis with better technology has suggested that instead of any large oil deposit at all, oil in the area is likely contained in many small traps. The only two test wells that have been drilled in the area have both produced underwhelming results, according to public data in one case and a 2006 National Geographic report in the other.
There is additional uncertainty surrounding whether oil companies would even rush to invest in the area the way proponents are hoping. Other, more accessible, reliable, and less controversial opportunities in the lower 48 states may remain a more enticing investment. So far, large oil companies have yet to publicly express interest in ANWR.
On top of the certainty of environmental damage, and the uncertainty of revenue, there is an even bigger question at stake. What lengths should we be going through to extract more fossil fuels from the earth, when the scientific consensus is that they are contributing directly to an impending global climate change crisis? Even a US government report recently acknowledged that almost of all global warming since the 50s is attributable to human activities, meaning the use of fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached its highest level in 800,000 years, and is still on the rise. Even Shell and BP have projected a 5C rise in global temperatures by 2050.
The decision to open ANWR for drilling is short sighted at best, and is clouded by partisan ideology that has always been hostile to federal land reserved for conservation. Under the guise of practicality, the move is actually a wild gamble, in which the best-case scenario produces income that wouldn’t even come close to offsetting the tax cuts themselves, while extracting more fossil fuels to contribute to climate change.