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Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Development Issues
(Released August 2001)



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The debate over whether or not to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling for oil and natural gas has raged for over 40 years. Throughout this time, industry representatives have argued that drilling would put a valuable untapped natural resource to good use, would allow us to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and could be undertaken with minimal disturbance of wildlife. Environmentalists have maintained that any intrusion would cause unacceptable damage to the arctic ecosystem, and have campaigned to designate the area as a wilderness, which would close the door on all future development.

The issue has been making more headlines recently because sharp increases in oil and natural gas prices have renewed developers' interest in the region, and because President Bush and his Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, support the idea of opening the ANWR to development.

On August 1st, the U.S. House of Representatives approved Bush's energy plan1, which opens a small portion of the ANWR to drilling for oil and gas. Bush's original proposal authorized drilling on 1.5 million acres of the refuge, but the House amended it to 2000 acres. The energy plan is expected to meet with heavy opposition when it enters the Democratic-controlled Senate this fall.

A discussion of the debate, including a history of the refuge and arguments for and against drilling, appears in Congressional Research Service report IB10073, The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: The Next Chapter (2001).

The ANWR was created in 1980 by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which designated 19.3 million acres of land as a wildlife refuge. The land that was set aside included President Eisenhower's 8.9 million acre legacy, the Arctic National Wildlife Range. The Act also authorized a study of the ANWR's coastal plain to determine its potential for oil and gas development.2

This coastal plain, also called the '1002 area', lies at the heart of the controversy. The 1.5-million acre coastal plain is only 8% of the entire wildlife refuge, but it is the most biologically rich region in the ANWR. It provides habitat for over 200 species of animals, including musk-oxen, polar bears, grizzly bears, wolves, and migratory birds, and is the traditional calving grounds for the Porcupine Caribou Herd, a herd of 130,000 animals.3 This region, where wildlife is most abundant, is also where large amounts of oil are most likely to be found.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) surveyed the region in 1984-85, and published estimates in 1998 that there was a 95% chance of finding 11.6 billion barrels of oil in the 1002 area, and a 5% chance of finding 31.5 billion barrels or more. However, not all of this oil would be recoverable. There was a 95% chance that 4.3 billion barrels would be technically recoverable, and a 5% chance that 11.9 billion barrels would be technically recoverable. Not all the technically recoverable oil would be worth the cost of removal, since the cost is affected by the fluctuating price of oil, and by the amount of oil to be extracted (extraction is more cost-effective for larger amounts of oil). At a price of $24 a barrel, the USGS estimated a 95% chance that 2.0 billion barrels of economically-recoverable oil would be found, and a 5% chance that 9.4 billion barrels of economically-recoverable oil would be found.4

Many other estimates are quoted by industry experts and by environmentalists. The issue is frequently confused because some organizations quote figures for the entire assessment area, while others quote them only for the coastal plain, and some cite the entire predicted amount of oil, while others quote only the technically or economically recoverable portions.

Arctic Power, an Alaska-based organization dedicated to opening the ANWR coastal plain for drilling, states that drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could yield up to 16 billion barrels of oil, the equivalent of "30 years of Middle East imports". This figure is the USGS estimate of all the technically recoverable oil that is present in the entire assessment area, the 1002 area and adjacent areas of the ANWR.5 The organization supports drilling based on its potential to increase the domestic oil and gas supply, create jobs, and reduce energy prices.

Meanwhile, the Alaska Wilderness League, a D.C. based environmental organization, states that the technically recoverable portion of oil may be no more than 148 million barrels, which would be not be worth the cost of its extraction, and maintains that the U.S. will remain dependent on foreign oil whether or not the Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain is drilled.6 The Wilderness Society, another D.C. environmental organization, estimates that according to the USGS survey, the ANWR would provide no more than a 6-month supply of oil to the U.S. (3.5 billion barrels), and that at the peak of production, oil from the refuge would amount to less than 2% of the U.S. demand.7

Two bills, distinct from Bush's energy plan, have been introduced to Congress to open the area for drilling, and two others have been introduced to designate it wilderness. Congress could also choose to do nothing, leaving the area with its current status as a wildlife refuge that is exempt from development.

Developers argue that drilling for oil in the ANWR would not harm wildlife. They point out that the Central Arctic Caribou Herd around the Prudhoe Bay oil field, on the coastal plain west of the ANWR, has increased in size during the three decades that the oil field has been under development, from about 6,000 caribou in 1970 to over 19,700 today. They suggest that likewise, development would not hurt the Porcupine Caribou Herd. They also note that new techniques of development, such as directional or slant drilling, roads built of ice instead of gravel, and oil pipelines with built-in safety measures to limit spills, will minimize the impact of development on the ANWR.5 Senator Frank H. Murkowski, Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and sponsor of one of the bills to open the ANWR for development, suggests that the area isn't "pristine" to begin with, since it contains the U.S. Military's Barter Island Distant Early Warning System for missile detection and the village of Kaktovik, home to 250 Inupiat people.8 These people and the residents of Alaska, by and large, support development, since it would revitalize the region's economy.

Environmental groups counter that the Central Arctic Herd is different from the Porcupine Caribou Herd, because it is a smaller, non-migratory herd that was able to shift to new calving grounds when drilling activities started in Prudhoe Bay, since the plain surrounding the Prudhoe Bay development is much larger than the ANWR coastal plain. Six times as many caribou use the ANWR coastal plain, and they have access to fewer alternative habitats if drilling displaces them from the coastal plain.6

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service states that 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.9 Based on the results of limited winter exploration allowed on the coastal plain by Congress in 1984-85, the Fish and Wildlife Service predicts significant impacts from exploration alone on polar bears, musk oxen, and tundra vegetation. The noise, light, and human activity associated with seismic exploration could drive polar bears to abandon their dens. Musk oxen populations are predicted to drop by 25-50% due to displacement from their preferred winter habitat along rivers. In the winter, there is only enough water in the region to build 10 miles of ice roads, so permanent gravel roads and pads would be required.

If year-round drilling enters into force, disruptions could force the Porcupine Caribou Herd to calve in less desirable locations, reduce their access to forage before and during calving, and restrict their access to places to escape from insects. Development would take place in the same area that snow geese and many other species of migratory birds use for summer feeding, and could prevent them from being able to gain enough weight to migrate.9

Opponents of development frequently refer to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in 1989, which put the debate over the ANWR on hold for several years. According to CRS report IB10073, the accident caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of sea birds and 4,000-6,000 marine mammals, and caused an estimated $100 million in other losses. Environmentalists fear a comparable accident could hurt wildlife in the coastal plain.

Even without a major spill, development is predicted to cause local pollution, alteration of drainage patterns, and changes in vegetation.9 Other costs include small-scale toxic waste leaks, the creation of roads and pipelines, stripping of rivers and streambeds for gravel, construction of living quarters for thousands of workers, and the use of heavy equipment like planes, trucks, and bulldozers.7

According to CRS report IB10073, if the ANWR were opened for exploration and no economically-recoverable oil was found, the region would probably recover quickly. However, if major oil deposits were found, development could last for decades, and if deposits of economically-recoverable natural gas were found in association with the oil deposits, the region could be under development for a century. Environmental groups believe that under these circumstances, full recovery would be impossible.

Written by Heather E. Lindsay.


1. Washington Post, August 2, 2001

2. American Association of Petroleum Geologists

3. Natural Resources Defense Council

4. U.S. Geological Survey

5. Arctic Power

6. Alaska Wilderness League

7. Wilderness Society

8. Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (AK), Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

9. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service