Congress gave the go-ahead to start drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as part of the tax-reform package that was passed by Republicans in December 2017. Despite this authorization, any drilling activities are still likely several years away.
There were two lease sales ordered for ANWR by Congress as part of this authorization. The first was to conclude within four years, while the second was within seven. Each lease sale is to include a minimum of 400,000 acres.
Kara Moriarty, President and CEO of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, described the timeframe like this to USA Today in January 2018. “My youngest son is 8 – he’s in the second grade. “We probably won’t see production from ANWR until he graduates from college.
No one is sure how much oil is available in ANWR because only a single exploratory well has ever been dug in the region. It is presumed to be rich in natural resources, however, with up to 16 billion barrels of recoverable oil in the coastal plain. New environmental surveys have been ordered to determine the overall viability of this project.
In the meantime, these are the drilling in ANWR pros and cons to consider when looking at the overall viability of this project.
List of the Pros of Drilling in ANWR
1. It offers high levels of economic potential for the U.S. GDP.
The primary argument that supporters have for drilling in ANWR is the potential economic gains of this activity. Drilling could create tens of thousands of jobs in its first decade of production. The monetary gains are expected to reach $1.1 billion in its first decade. There is also the benefit of being able to make the United States become more energy independent. Since one-third of Alaska’s jobs are based on the oil industry and these opportunities are declining, this effort would keep the state’s economy alive too.
2. Wildlife has a way of adapting to changing situations.
There is already a massive pipeline that transports oil from the northern coast of Alaska to its southern coast. This 800-mile structure is called the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. Wildlife biologists were concerned that the caribou would be disrupted by the presence of this technology, but the opposite effect occurred.
Natalie Boelman, an earth scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, notes that the animals graze underneath the structure as if it isn’t even there. “Surprisingly, they don’t really seem bothered by it,” she told Columbia University’s State of the Planet blog in 2017. “I don’t think they care at all.”
3. The high end of the potential economic activity cannot be ignored.
The United States has one large hope for a conventional oil discovery on land – and that is ANWR. The potential value of what is present there was valued at $500 billion in 2016. Even if production levels go at full speed to access this resource, it will provide continued employment opportunities that make a significant impact to local communities. The Inupiat Eskimo tribe is evidence of what can happen when oil revenues start to flow. They turned their coastal villages from ramshackle buildings into a place with modern schools and clinics – including the installation of indoor plumbing for the first time.
4. It is easier to cleanup spills in ANWR than other drilling locations.
There is no proven system for collecting oil spills that occur underneath the ice that blankets most of the Arctic Ocean throughout the year. The dangerous weather patterns that hit Alaska, like the 2012 storm that blew a drilling rig aground that was owned by Shell, prove that there is danger present. Huge ice sheets can impact seafloor pipelines. If a spill was to occur, ANWR would be the place where it would be easier to provide restoration to the environment.
5. Drilling in ANWR helps the state economy dramatically.
When drilling occurs on federal lands, then the State of Alaska can use its oil production tax to its advantage. That means it may be entitled to up to 50% of the lease income and royalties generated from this activity. The federal government in Washington, DC would receive the other portion. If this drilling activity were to occur offshore, then there wouldn’t be any revenues generated from these activities unless the state could negotiate a payment of some type.
6. There is some evidence to suggest that wildlife could thrive in this setting.
In a 2003 report that looked at the viability of drilling in ANWR, there were notable changes to the lives of animals included with the data submitted to the Bush administration at the time. One of the report’s findings discovered that arctic predators, such as ravens, foxes, and gulls, were thriving in the areas around oil fields because of the food trash that was left behind by human activities. There will always be some impacts that can never be eliminated when access natural resources in sensitive areas, but there continues to be progress made in reducing the severity of what occurs.
List of the Cons of Drilling in ANWR
1. It could threaten the way of life for indigenous tribes.
There are people who currently live in ANWR as they have done since their ancestors first moved to the region. Although the climate is often challenging, especially near the northern portion above the Arctic Circle, changing the environment to accommodate drilling could disrupt their living patterns. These tribes rely on local caribou and other wildlife for their sustenance. There is a very real possibility that migration routes could shift, which could force people off of their lands.
2. The amount of oil produced by ANWR is relatively insignificant.
On the average year in the United States, there are 3.7 billion barrels of oil which come through American ports. The total that is available in this wildlife region would allow for about 6 years of independence at best assuming that the current consumption levels stay the say. The additional products coming from here would not make a significant difference on the price of crude oil as an international commodity, nor would it help to foster energy independence in an impactful way. The results would create a minimal uptick in what could be stored as an emergency reserve at best.
3. There is the increased risk of oil spills in the region.
Oil spills that occur on natural preserves are devastating to the environment and local wildlife. The liquid will coat the feathers or fur of the animals, which destroys the insulation they have to the cold weather in the region. It also negates the water-repellant abilities, so there is an increase in the risk of hypothermia as well. There is a risk that plants could be killed, and the animals eating oil-covered plants would be poisoned when the product is ingested.
4. Production activities destroy the tundra.
When companies begin to explore for oil in regions like ANWR, they create an immediate and negative impact on the local environment. The tracks that their vehicles leave behind can be seen for decades after the event. If production occurs in this region, then there will be new power lines installed, increased road traffic, and construction trucks moving up and down the tundra. Even the noise and debris from these operations would be enough to disrupt caribou and waterfowl living habits.
5. Local wildlife impacts could have global consequences.
Boelman notes that there are birds that cover every puddle and pond in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge when the warmer days of spring start to come. There are endangered species that come to this region, along with birds who migrate from all over the world. “If something happens to their breeding grounds,” she told State of the Planet, “it will impact the rest of the planet.” The area designated for drilling is also a critical calving ground for caribou that could be disrupted by the drilling activities.
6. It isn’t a place where energy companies want to be in the first place.
When the first studies about the potential for lease interest went out to energy companies about this opportunity in ANWR, most of them stayed away from the idea without giving it a closer look. Oil explorers in this region would face additional challenges because they’re drilling in an area where no one has a lot of experience. There are no guarantees of resources to be found there yet. Environmentalists seeking to protect the land would likely file lawsuits in an attempt to prevent development activities. Then there is the fact that a future administration could ban or block their investment in the future. Unless oil prices rise and then stay high, this isn’t a project most will pursue anyway.
7. Accessing it now would remove a potential reserve for the future.
The reality of today’s world is that we are starting to look for ways to reduce the use of fossil fuels. We don’t need the resources that are sitting beneath this nature preserve right now. Having access to it won’t impact the cost of oil or natural gas in significant ways. Although there is an employment benefit to consider, even these positions would be temporary. If we know that this resource is available, then keeping it as a critical reserve could be the wiser course of action.
8. It will eventually run out.
The primary disadvantage that we all face when drilling in ANWR is that this is a finite product. Even if we tap all of the reserves which are available here, there isn’t going to be anything to produce one day. We will move on, but the delicate ecosystems of the tundra will stay ravaged for generations. Is it worthwhile to create lasting change in an environment which already supports our needs to generate a few billion dollars’ worth of economic activity over a couple of decades?
9. More natural resource use equates to higher levels of greenhouse gas production.
If we have access to more crude oil, then it becomes possible to create more refined products from this resource. This results in a higher level of greenhouse gas production which could offer ongoing negative impacts to the planet. Although there is some contention about the cause of the world’s warming trend, it is difficult to ignore the fact that it is getting hotter outside. Global land and ocean temperatures as an anomaly have not experienced a decline since the 1970s. They are also at their highest levels in history today.
10. Higher levels of carbon dioxide create other negative impacts.
The actions of drilling for oil in ANWR (and other methods of oil and natural gas extraction) create higher levels of carbon dioxide in our planet’s atmosphere. This shift in content produces an increase in water acidity in the oceans. That creates damage to shellfish and other marine life. Water temperatures melt the glaciers as well, which increases the average sea levels around the world. It generates heavier rainfall events, the intensity of heat waves, and the risks for extreme weather and natural disasters.
11. There is a safety risk to the workers to consider as well.
Working in ANWR will place employees responsible for these activities in a remote location where access to services is limited. There are numerous health and safety hazards associated with oil drilling activities, including scattering and blowouts. If a life-threatening event occurred during these efforts, then it could reduce the odds of the effected employee from being able to survive.
The pros and cons of drilling in ANWR show that the future of this potentially fragile ecosystem is as uncertain as ever. More than 800,000 acres of leases are up for grabs over the next 7 years for companies who might want to invest in this project. Although it could offer more energy to the U.S., the environmental impact may also be a price that is too high to pay. We are years away from knowing with certainty what will happen, so until then, evaluation of these key points is the best that we have.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.