Essay: Northern Alaska, Rich in Wildlife and Oil

At the turn of the twentieth century, early explorers found oil seeps and oil-stained sands in Alaska's North Slope, the area north of the Brooks Range. From the crest of the mountain range to the coastal areas of the Beaufort and Chuckchi seas, this region of rolling foothills, wild rivers, and coastal plain wetlands provides habitat for millions of waterfowl, caribou, Arctic peregrine falcons, and other wildlife.

Oil exploration began in 1923 in the federally owned, 23 million-acre area now known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPRA). Since then over 13 billion barrels of oil have flowed from more than a dozen fields through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline to the ice-free port of Valdez on Alaska's southern coast.

Wilderness, or Not? Murky Legislation Ignites a Turf War

In 1960, concern over preserving natural resources led Congress to designate 8.9 million acres of coastal plain and mountains of Northeast Alaska as the Arctic National Wildlife Range. Twenty years later, Congress passed the Alaska Lands Act, which doubled the size of the range to nearly 20 million acres, including 8 million acres as "wilderness," and renamed it the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The entire refuge lies north of the Arctic Circle and 1,300 miles south of the North Pole.

Acknowledging the possible presence of valuable hydrocarbon reserves, Section 1002 of the Act set aside a 1.5 million-acre section of coastal plain at the northeastern tip of the refuge and authorized the evaluation of the oil and gas potential of the area by means other than drilling.

The dual status of ANWR's 1002 area set the stage for a turf war that has simmered ever since, as oil interests, environmentalists, politicians, and even scientists wrangle over whether to open up ANWR's coastal plain to energy development or preserve its integrity as part of the last near-pristine wilderness left in the United States.

Premium Habitat for Unique Wildlife

It is a whole place, as true a wilderness as there is anywhere on this continent and unlike any other that I know of.

—Morris Udall, former U.S. Congressman

The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a unique tundra ecosystem stretching just 110 miles along the Beaufort Sea and measuring only 14 to 50 miles across. Dotted with thousands of small ponds, the tundra turns in the south into gently rolling hills that become the foothills of the northern Brooks Range, which dominates the refuge with glacier-clad peaks up to 9,000 feet tall.

This unique compression of habitats concentrates an extraordinary variety of species, including caribou, three kinds of bears, wolves, wolverines, musk oxen, Arctic and red foxes, Dall sheep, trout and grayling, snow geese and tundra swans, and millions of birds that pass through during the brief Arctic summer. For tens of thousands of years, the Porcupine caribou herd has migrated north each spring to calve on the coastal plain and fatten up on its nutritious vegetation. The coastal waters support a variety of marine mammals, including the endangered bowhead whale.

Despite the intense winter cold, short summers, and waterlogged soil, the refuge is also home to many low shrubs, mosses, lichens, and grasses. Arctic vegetation grows slowly and is exceedingly susceptible to trampling. In some places, Native American trails thousands of years old are still visible.

Though only a small fraction of ANWR is under consideration for oil exploration, the coastal-plain area houses far greater biodiversity than anywhere else on Alaska's North Slope. A plethora of native plants and animals depend for their survival on a strip of land whose unforgiving climate and limited resources allow only a small window for survival and regeneration.

Oil to the Left of ANWR, Oil to the Right

The oil industry has made its mark on Alaska's North Slope, changing it from pristine arctic tundra to the site of a sprawling industrial complex. Major petroleum discoveries have been made to the east of ANWR's coastal plain, in Canada, and to the west lie the Prudhoe Bay, Lisburne, Endicott, Milne Point, and Kuparuk oil fields. Producing approximately 1.5 million barrels of oil a day, these fields are the source of approximately 25 percent of U.S. oil production.

The basis of all we know about the oil- and gas-bearing potential of the coastal plain is a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) analysis of a single set of 2D seismic data acquired along a coarse three-mile by six-mile grid during the winters of 1984 and 1985, as well as projection of geological information from adjacent wells. In the late 1990's, as interest in ANWR's energy potential increased, scientists spent three years on a new USGS assessment of the 1.5 million--acre region. They ran the seismic data acquired in the mid-'80s through new computer models, conducted new field studies, and incorporated new information from 41 wells drilled over the years near the borders of the refuge.

Released in 1998, the report concluded that the ANWR 1002 area contains between 4.3 and 11.8 billion barrels (bbo) of technically recoverable oil, with a mean value of 7.7 bbo. About half as much profitable petroleum as Prudhoe Bay was estimated to hold in 1977, this is more than was previously estimated. Most of the oil is thought to lie in the western part of the reserve, which is closest to existing roads and pipelines. The report also concluded that most of the oil is likely to occur in a number of smaller pockets rather than in a single large accumulation, which makes recovery more expensive, with a greater tax on the environment. ""If 'the pie' has been cut into many small pieces, and/or late-stage faulting has allowed oil to leak out of the trapping structure, it will affect the economics of the prospect," explains Charlie Mandeville, research scientist at the American Museum of Natural History and former exploration geophysicist.

Plenty of Uncertainties Remain

Wildlife on Alaska's North Slope has managed to coexist with oil exploration, but the impact remains unclear. In March 2002, a USGS report based on 12 years of biological research concluded that wildlife in the 1002 region is especially vulnerable to the kinds of disturbances that development may bring. The report singled out snow geese as at risk of displacement because of increased activity, including air traffic, and said that the geese would not necessarily find adequate feeding grounds elsewhere. Denning polar bears, another fixture on the coastal plain, might also be adversely affected, but the report added that "aggressive and proactive management" could minimize the problem.

Other sensitive ecological issues include:

• The caribou question: Proponents of drilling point out that the Central Arctic herd, a separate group whose summer habitat encompasses the Prudhoe Bay and Kuparuk oil fields to the west, has grown in size since exploration began. However, the 1002 coastal plain provides calving habitat for a herd nearly five times as large as the Central Arctic herd in an area one-fifth the size. The USGS report said that "oil development will most likely restrict the location of concentrated calving areas." Since the Porcupine herd has little other high-quality habitat, and calf survival has been linked to the animals' ability to move freely, higher mortality is likely. The caribou also congregate with their newborn calves in the most rapidly greening areas, and there are some indications that they're being displaced from these favorite summer forage areas around existing oil fields to the west.

• The musk oxen question: Formerly found across arctic Alaska, musk oxen were wiped out in the mid nineteenth century. A small herd was reintroduced to the coastal plain in 1969. Numbers there have stabilized, and the population continues to expand to the east and west. Musk oxen do not migrate, but survive the brutal winters by hunkering down and conserving energy by limiting movement as much as possible. This renders them particularly "vulnerable to disturbances" from oil and gas exploration, according to the USGS report, because drilling activity is most intense during the winter.

• The fresh-water question: Roads made of water and crushed ice have now largely replaced their gravel counterparts during wintertime oil exploration. It takes about a million gallons of water to construct a mile-long stretch of ice road. While liquid water is plentiful around the Prudhoe oil fields, even at minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit, a 1989 survey estimated the total wintertime freshwater supplies in the ANWR coastal plain at only 9 million gallons. Shallow tundra lakes freeze solid, and the largest pockets of unfrozen water lie along the major interior rivers. Wildlife biologists are concerned that if these few wet lakes are depleted, migrating waterfowl may find less to eat, and fish that overwinter in the spring-fed Canning River may suffer.

High-tech Tools to the Rescue?

Interior Secretary Gale Norton has repeatedly maintained that modern technologies allow oil to be extracted from ANWR without harming the environment. New procedures—winter-only exploration, ice roads and airstrips, eco-sensitive seismic surveys, better waste disposal—have indeed greatly reduced the impact of oil exploration. Future drill pads could be served by short airstrips and placed far from nutritious cottongrass patches. Many musk oxen wear radio collars, allowing their movements to be tracked so contact can be minimized. Oil companies have learned where to build ramps or elevate pipelines so they don't interfere with caribou calving and migration. Supporters maintain that oil drilling in the coastal plain will require a total footprint—the amount of space taken up by infrastructure—no larger than that of the average airport.

Environmentalists argue, however, that no matter how sophisticated our tools, the infrastructure necessary to extract oil will always take a toll on the environment. Prudhoe Bay, too, was once pristine. And since the oil in the 1002 area is believed to be scattered in many small pockets, development is likely to crisscross the coastal plain in a tight web, leaving little refuge indeed.

What's in Store for ANWR?

In the more than two decades since a 2D seismic survey was conducted inside ANWR's 1002 area, technology has made huge advances, enabling scientists to generate detailed 3D portraits of the Earth's interior. A new seismic survey would certainly increase the resolution of structures and permit a tighter assessment of reservoirs in the area, but the hard to face fact of the matter (and what makes the debate so slippery) is that until we go up there and drill some prospects, we are dealing with no more than that — the prospect of one day producing oil from ANWR.

On April 18, 2002, the Senate rejected a provision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. However, at the end of Autumn 2002, Congress must reconcile two versions of an energy bill, and drilling in ANWR remains a top priority for the Bush administration.