Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Selling More Heroin to Pay for Methadone: Oil Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Part 1

(This is the first of a two-part examination of proposed oil exploitation in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.)

The pending tax cut legislation in Congress would open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska to oil exploitation. What does oil drilling that harasses caribou have to do with taxes? It’s a long and tangled tale, and to tell it we need to go back to the origins of ANWR and subsequent legislation that led to a grand compromise to allow oil exploration on a portion of the refuge. We also have to look at how addicted the state government of Alaska has become to its share of the oil revenues from federal public lands, while at the same time acknowledging how worried the state is about climate change.

   
  
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     This member of the Porcupine caribou herd   ( Rangifer tarandus granti ), like all members of the herd, opposes drilling for oil in ANWR.  Source: Wikipedia

This member of the Porcupine caribou herd (Rangifer tarandus granti), like all members of the herd, opposes drilling for oil in ANWR. Source: Wikipedia

In early November 2017, Alaska’s governor, Bill Walker, made the case that opening a small portion of ANWR to oil and gas development is the only way to fund the state’s climate change mitigation efforts. Wait, isn’t that like selling more heroin to pay for methadone? The irony seems to be lost on Alaskan leaders. Irony aside, the prospect of drilling in the ANWR marks a very dark time for federal public lands conservation, but that should not keep us from looking ahead with determination and having a plan for a half century from now.

The Alaskan Arctic, Wild and Defiled

Shortly before leaving office, the Eisenhower administration in 1960 established the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). A significant fraction of Alaska’s Arctic is in ANWR. The website Wilderness.net describes it this way:

No other region of America has seen less human impact than the northeastern corner of Alaska. Here the Brooks Range bulges up near the Arctic Ocean to create a unique combination of habitats, including arctic, subarctic, and alpine ecosystems. Approximately 200 miles by 200 miles, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge stretches down both sides of the Brooks Range here, occupying almost 20 million acres—the size of South Carolina. Peaks reaching 9,000 feet, the highest in the Brooks, look northward across rolling tundra cut by serpentine rivers and dotted with clusters of freshwater lakes. Farther north lie the barrier islands and saltwater lagoons of the Arctic Ocean. Southward the terrain drops from treeless mountains into broad conifer- and hardwood-covered valleys. By Arctic standards, the refuge’s mammal population is abundant: brown bears, moose, wolves, wolverines, and red foxes everywhere; Dall sheep and marmots in the high mountains; black bears, coyotes, lynx, porcupines, and beavers in the forestland; musk oxen and arctic foxes on the north slopes; polar bears on the ice pack; and the 110,000-member Porcupine caribou herd in winter in the southern portion. Beluga and bowhead whales migrate along the coast with ringed and bearded seals. Migratory birds flock here, some traveling all the way from Antarctica.

It is the coastal plain of ANWR, now known as the “1002? Area, for reasons that will be explained later, that is of interest to oil companies.

   
  
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     The Arctic Coastal Plain in the 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, shown here with the Brooks Range in the background, is the part of the refuge that is interesting to oil companies.  Source: Wikipedia

The Arctic Coastal Plain in the 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, shown here with the Brooks Range in the background, is the part of the refuge that is interesting to oil companies. Source: Wikipedia

   
  
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     The National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPRA) is the largest undeveloped piece of public land in the United States, while the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is the nation’s largest wildlife refuge and also includes the nation’s second largest designated wilderness.  Source: US Geological Survey

The National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPRA) is the largest undeveloped piece of public land in the United States, while the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is the nation’s largest wildlife refuge and also includes the nation’s second largest designated wilderness. Source: US Geological Survey

  What it lacks in oil, NPRA makes up for in wildlife: a half million caribou, the wolves and wolverine that feast upon caribou, and the highest concentration of grizzly bears in the Alaskan Arctic.

   
  
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     The wildlife habitat within the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPRA) is immense; this is just a small portion of it . Source: Wikipedia

The wildlife habitat within the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPRA) is immense; this is just a small portion of it. Source: Wikipedia

The Grand Compromise of 1980

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) signed by President Nixon on December 18, 1971, provided vital interim protection for tens of millions of acres of wild federal public lands, but that protection was set to end on December 18, 1978. In 1973, the first versions of what would become the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) were introduced in Congress. Over the next several Congresses, hearings were held, proposals and counterproposals abounded, and filibusters were threatened.

When 1978 rolled around, ANILCA was bottled up in the Senate due to a filibuster threat by Senator Mike Gravel (D-AK) and failed to pass before Congress went home to campaign for reelection in November. On December 1, 1978, President Jimmy Carter proclaimed 55,975,000 acres of new national monuments in Alaska pursuant to the National Monuments Act of 1906 (a.k.a. the Antiquities Act). Yes, more Alaskans than not were apoplectic. The 1978 elections yielded a House of Representatives that was less favorable to Alaska federal lands conservation, so the pressure was on both conservation and anti-conservation forces to make a deal in the 96th Congress (1979–80), the latter fearing more Carterian national monuments in their future and the former fearing more election losses.

While Carter lost his bid for reelection to Ronald Reagan on November 4, 1980, Congress struck a deal eight days later to enact ANILCA into law.

Like all grand deals, the act included good, bad, and ugly provisions. As for the good, they were quite good, adding 43.6 million acres to the National Park System, 9.8 million acres to the National Wildlife Refuge System, 3.4 million acres to the National Forest System, and 56.3 million acres to the National Wilderness System; naming twenty-five new wild and scenic rivers; and establishing two national monuments on the Tongass National Forest, along with a national conservation area and a national recreation area (both managed by the Bureau of Land Management). In all, the conservation status of 157 million acres of federal public lands was elevated.

As for the bad and the ugly, space here does not allow a detailed roster, but they included an obscene congressionally mandated logging level for the Tongass National Forest (later dialed way back by a later Congress), the effective abolition of the ability of the president to proclaim national monuments in Alaska, and a sundry list of troubling special provisions that pertain only to federal public lands in Alaska.

ANILCA designated a significant part of of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, but left out approximately 1.5 million acres on the refuge’s relatively narrow coastal plain north of the Brooks Range, south of the Arctic Ocean, west of Canada’s Ivvavik National Park, and about 50 miles east of Prudhoe Bay, the northern terminal of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The infamous Section 1002 of ANILCA required that studies be performed on this area—including exploration for oil and gas, along with assessment of fish and wildlife resources—to provide information to Congress. Because this congressionally designated part of the refuge coastal plain was addressed in Section 1002 of ANILCA, it is now referred to as the 1002 Area.

Fortunately for the next nearly four decades, Section 1003 of ANILCA provided in full: “Production of oil and gas from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is prohibited and no leasing or other development leading to production of oil and gas from the range shall be undertaken until authorized by an Act of Congress.”

In other words, ANILCA allowed exploration but not production, setting the stage for periodic and recurring threats to drill for oil in ANWR.

The Stage Is Set and the Lines Are Drawn

Little doubt exists that the 1002 Area has oil, but how much—both in volume and in value—is in dispute. Most of it is in the “undeformed” portion (where the rock layers are generally horizontal), the western one-third of the 1002 Area, convenient for an extension of feeder lines to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. There appears to be little exploitable oil in the remaining deformed area (where rocks are folded and faulted). How much oil is exploitable is a function of price. The higher the price of gasoline, the more attractive is Arctic oil to Big Oil. Of course, as the price of gas goes up, demand for it will go down, and existing less-expensive sources of oil can be found without drilling in the refuge.

   
  
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     The “undeformed” part of the 1002 Area is where the oil is. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System is just off the western edge of the map.  Source: US Geological Survey

The “undeformed” part of the 1002 Area is where the oil is. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System is just off the western edge of the map. Source: US Geological Survey

The battle lines when it comes to drilling for an indeterminate amount of oil in ANWR have long been drawn. Those who favor protecting the climate and the caribou over defiling ANWR include but are not limited to

·      the entire conservation community,

·      the Gwich’in peoples, who refer to themselves as the caribou people and who derive 70 percent of their diet from caribou,

·      a majority of members of the Senate and the House of Representatives, if it were a straight up-or-down vote,

·      Canada,

·      each and every individual of the species Rangifer tarandus granti (a.k.a. Porcupine caribou), and

·      the forces of good.

Those who lust after the oil under the ANWR coastal plain include but are not limited to

·      Big Oil,

·      the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (a profit-maximizing “native corporation” created by ANCSA to exploit the lands the federal government collectively returned to Alaska natives),

·      the state government of Alaska, including the governor and the legislature, who have become addicted to their massive share of federal oil revenues, and

·      the forces of evil.

How will this play out? Stay tuned for Part 2.