Environmental Impacts of Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

In the course of exploring issues related to drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), I’ve argued that it is coming down largely to deciding between twenty cents or so off a gallon of gas in ten years versus the environmental impact. I haven’t given much ink to what the environmental impact would be, so here is what I have found.

Drilling protagonists, including Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, assert that the entire operation could be done on a mere 2,000 acres. As the National Resource Defense Council explains

President Bush made a speech on March 9, 2005 in which he repeated the widely discredited claim that the oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could be reached by drilling on only 2,000 acres.

“Thanks to advances in technology…we can now reach all of ANWR’s oil by drilling on just 2,000 acres,” he said. “Two thousand acres is the size of the Columbus [Ohio] airport. By applying the most innovative environmental practices, we can carry out the project with almost no impact on land or local wildlife.”

The reason this claim is widely discredited is that the 2,000 acres refers only to the actual footprint of the facilities and stanchions of the piplines, which would not be in a compact area but spread out over the 1.5 million acres of the coastal plane. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says (bold is mine),

Newer technologies that are applied today in Alaska’s expanding North Slope oil fields include directional drilling that allows for multiple well heads on smaller drill pads; the re-injection of drilling wastes into the ground, which replaces surface reserve pits; better delineation of oil reserves using 3-dimensional seismic surveys, which has reduced the number of dry holes; and use of temporary ice pads and ice roads for conducting exploratory drilling and construction in the winter. As the oil fields expand east and west, additional oil reserves are consequently being tapped from smaller satellite fields that rely on the existing infrastructure at Prudhoe Bay and Kuparuk.

Although technological advances in oil and gas exploration and development have reduced some of the harmful environmental effects associated with those activities, oil and gas development remains an intrusive industrial process. The physical “footprint” of the existing North Slope oil facilities and roads covers about 10,000 acres, but the current industrial complex extends across an 800 square mile region, nearly 100 miles from east to west. It continues to grow as new oil fields are developed.

The 100-mile wide 1002 Area is located more than 30 miles from the end of the nearest pipeline and more than 50 miles from the nearest gravel road and oil support facilities. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, possible oil reserves may be located in many small accumulations in complex geological formations, rather than in one giant field as was discovered at Prudhoe Bay. Consequently, development in the 1002 Area could likely require a large number of small production sites spread across the Refuge landscape, connected by an infrastructure of roads, pipelines, power plants, processing facilities, loading docks, dormitories, airstrips, gravel pits, utility lines and landfills.

The counterargument to this is that ANWR is a remote place where nobody goes, and drilling in nearby Prudhoe Bay is about as conscious of environmental impacts as you can get. For a gritty, personal, often humorous account that nicely gives this side, see this Jonah Goldberg post. He says, for example,

Today, crews aren’t allowed on the tundra. “If I took a leak out there, I’d get fired,” an engineer tells me. “In the winter, if you spill some coffee into the snow, you’d better go get a shovel and dig it up.”

One of the reasons there is so little environmental impact is that these are the M*A*S*H units of oil exploration: The entire operation is on wheels. Pretty much everything in Alpine doubles as a cosmic-sized Tonka truck. In order to avoid roadwork on the precious tundra, the oil companies build immense ice roads that can bear massive stresses, but still melt harmlessly during the summer. Divided into 15 modules weighing over 15,000 tons, almost the entire Alpine installation was driven, literally, over the Arctic Ocean, and across miles of tundra-without leaving so much as a pothole.

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