(This is the second of a two-part examination of proposed oil exploitation in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.)
As part of the tax bill recently signed into law by President Trump, at the behest Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Congress opened up Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling. The next battle over drilling the in the refuge is about to commence. For the caribou and nature, each battle must be won or at least a draw. For the forces of darkness, they must only win once.
Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), like her father who previously held her Senate seat and every other member of the Alaska congressional delegation (yes, there are but three), has long sought to let oil rigs into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “You have NPR-A, which is a large area about the size of Indiana, with low prospectivity, about a billion barrels’ potential there,” Senator Murkowski told E&E News. “And then over in ANWR on the eastern side, an area about the size of Delaware, smaller, we’re looking at 2,000 acres, and, oh, by the way, 10 billion barrels.”
Under the arcane rules of the Senate that allow legislation to be passed that is not subject to a filibuster, which my have three-fifths of the Senate (60 votes) to overcome, the legislative language permitting drilling in the refuge was deemed germane by the Senate parliamentarian because it will supposedly raise revenue for the federal treasury during the next decade, the budgeting horizon for the tax bill. Given the soft oil market and the high cost drilling, large revenues from defiling the refuge won’t likely occur.
The other reason the tax bill included the drilling provision was to secure the vote of Murkowski. The Republicans hold only 52 seats in the Senate and could only afford to lose two votes from their own caucus (in the case of a 50-50 tie vote, Vice President Mike Pence would vote with his fellow Republicans to break the tie. Murkowski did not vote for the bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, so she has shown she has the gonads to buck her leadership.
Murkowski’s previous refuge-defiling efforts all were along paths that required 60 votes in the Senate, something she could not get even with the current Senate. If it were a simple freestanding up-or-down vote on drilling in the refuge, one would expect a few Republican senators to also vote no. But simple up-or-down votes in the Senate and the House of Representatives are a thing of the past. Attaching drilling language to the larger tax package through reconciliation gives the Alaska delegation the best shot it has had in decades to realize its goal of allowing energy development in the refuge’s coastal plain.
Impacts on the Refuge
Senator Murkowski’s legislation was shrewdly drafted to allow for a maximum disturbance footprint (oil rigs, pads, roads, airstrips, and the like) of 2,000 acres in the nation’s largest national wildlife refuge. Advances in directional drilling allow a lot more oil to be exploited from each drill pad. Representative Don Young (R-AK) has described the footprint as a speckle on a nose that no one can see.
“It is probably more accurate to say that this speckle is not on the nose; it is probably right on the heart,” said Basile van Havre, director-general of domestic and international biodiversity policy with the Canadian Wildlife Service, which jointly manages the Porcupine caribou herd with the United States. The point is that the number of acres fully nuked by development doesn’t account for the relative importance those acres may have or the edge effect of effectively rendering worthless as habitat a large number of acres, directly adjacent to the “footprint.”
The oil available from defiling a little more than three square miles won’t appease the beast of Big Oil and the Alaska state government permanently attached to its teat, but the drilling will have impacts on the refuge, on taxpayers, and on the rate of climate change in Alaska. That should motivate conservationists to persevere in defending the refuge and to keep our eye on an opportunity that may not present itself for decades.
Impacts on Taxpayers
Writing in an opinion piece in USA Today, David Murphy, an assistant professor of environmental studies at St. Lawrence University, poked holes in the congressionally concocted numbers in the tax bill purporting to quantify what can be expected from drilling in in the refuge. He made it clear that taxpayers will end up holding the bag while the deficit balloons.
Drilling in the Arctic refuge will most likely cost the U.S. taxpayers as it is currently written in the Senate’s tax bill. To make Congress’ math work, companies must bid at least $2 billion just to lease the land—equivalent to roughly $1,300 per acre—and any amount below $2 billion will actually add to the deficit.
The history of bidding in the North Slope is much lower than that $1,300 per acre level. In a recent analysis done for the Alaska Wilderness League, I calculated the average bid on the North Slope to be only $194 per acre—nearly seven times lower than the $1,300 per acre level. (Even that number is skewed high as it includes offshore acreage.) The average onshore per acre bid is a measly $34, almost 40 times lower than that needed to meet the current tax bill.
It should be noted as well that shale oil companies in the lower 48 states can now break even with oil prices below $40 per barrel, while production in the Arctic required between $60 and $70 per barrel. Not many oil companies will jump at these prices.
Recently, just west of the refuge, 900 tracts were offered for lease, and only seven received bids. ConocoPhillips’ bid price was $14.99 per acre, a far cry from $1,300 per acre.
I calculated in my report that the current 2017–2025 corporate average fuel economy standards will reduce oil consumption by roughly six times the amount of oil projected to be within the Arctic refuge. So doing nothing not only will have a larger positive impact on U.S. energy than opening the refuge, it will have the added bonus of not despoiling one of our last greatest wild places.
Of course, no surprise, the Trump administration seeks to roll back the corporate average fuel economy standards.
What Does Alaska Gain?
Alaska is long past peak oil (the point in time when the production of oil reaches its maximum rate, after which production declines). But drilling in the refuge can forestall the inevitable end of Alaska oil for a while, climate and caribou be damned. And to the minds of Alaskan officials, it can help fund climate change mitigation efforts that will be even more necessary with the assault of additional carbon dioxide pollution from opening up the 1002 Area to fossil fuel exploitation.
The average temperature across Alaska has increased by approximately 3°F over the relatively recent past; the increase in winter temperature averages more like 6°F. Warmer temperatures mean more precipitation, but the state is likely to become drier due to that warming. Then there is this thing call permafrost. Eighty percent of Alaska’s surface is, for the present, over permafrost. When permafrost becomes impermafrost, land subsidence plays havoc with roads, railroads, airstrips, buildings, and other infrastructure.
The facts in the previous paragraph came from a no-longer operative web page of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The web page began with this statement:
This is not the current EPA website. To navigate to the current EPA website, please go to www.epa.gov. This website is historical material reflecting the EPA website as it existed on January 19, 2017. This website is no longer updated and links to external websites and some internal pages may not work. More information.
January 19, 2017 was the last working day of the Obama administration. Fortunately, we are now under the Trump administration, when climate change isn’t a problem.
Despite more of its voters than not voting for Trump, the State of Alaska is quite worried about climate change, according to its Climate Change in Alaska web page:
Global warming is currently impacting Alaska and will continue to impact it a number of ways. These impacts include melting polar ice, the retreat of glaciers, increasing storm intensity, wildfires, coastal flooding, droughts, crop failures, loss of habitat and threatened plant and animal species.
. . .
Less ice means more open water—which means greater absorption of solar energy—which leads to increased warming in the ocean, and in turn accelerates more ice loss. This has led to a wide range of impacts in Alaska, including:
· melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and flooding of coastal communities. Warming of oceans and melting of land-based ice increases the volume of ocean water. Loss of sea-ice cover changes habitat for arctic species and leaves coastal communities more exposed to larger waves generated by severe storms.
· thawing permafrost, increased storm severity, and related infrastructure damage to roads, utility infrastructure, pipelines and buildings. Extremes in weather patterns, precipitation and rising sea levels will affect safe water sources in villages, and contributes to increased erosion along Alaska coasts and rivers and undermines Alaska boreal forests.
· loss of the subsistence way of life as animal habitat and migration patterns shift and as hunting and fishing become more dangerous with changing sea and river ice. Warming streams and increased silt from melting glaciers affect fish habitat. Boreal forests advance northward and to higher elevations, displacing tundra. Invasive species compete with native vegetation. Humans, animals and plants may be exposed to new infectious diseases as habitat changes.
· forest fires and insect infestations increasing in frequency and intensity. In the past decade, Alaska has witnessed a record loss of forests to fires and spruce bark beetles.
For the State of Alaska, this means massive spending to adapt to climate change—spending that Alaska’s leadership believes can be funded by drilling in the refuge. Yes, one must exploit more fossil fuels to generate the money to pay for the damage caused by burning those fossil fuels. Can you spell i-r-o-n-y?
A recognized expert on irony, Senator Al Franken (D-MN), said to Alaska’s lieutenant governor, Byron Mallott (D), in a Senate hearing: “Drilling for oil in the last pristine Arctic ecosystem on the continent while climate change is having a disproportionate impact on the region seems to me kind of ironic.” Franken asked Mallott, “Do you disagree that there is some irony here?”
Mallott did disagree, by noting that he believes it will take decades for the shift from fossil fuels to occur, perhaps silently thinking ironically that that will be when he’s no longer interested in holding or able to hold elective office.
The Necessity to Persevere in Defending the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
The Senate Parliamentarian allows in a “reconciliation” bill only provisions that have to do with money. The waiving of environmental protection standards such as the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act cannot be included in the legislative language allowing Arctic drilling. Bringing these standards to bear when the time comes could short-circuit the drilling. There are still many more battles to fight and opportunities to change the battlefield back to more favorable ground.
There is also a long-term prospect presented by the fact that the 800-mile-long Trans-Alaska Pipeline carries today only one-quarter of the oil it carried at its peak of more than 2 million barrels per day in 1988. Oil can likely still flow at 300,000 barrels per day, but below that the pipeline might turn into an 800-mile-long tube of paraffin. The lower the volume, the slower the flow. At Pipe Station 1 at Prudhoe Bay, the oil is heated to 100°F, and it is further heated along the way with the hope of keeping it above 37°F as it emerges at Valdez for export. Every four days a “pig” (think a 48-inch-wide Q-tip) makes the trip to scrub build-up from the pipeline walls.
Don’t tell anyone just yet, but for the sake of the climate and the wild, the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska should be made part of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It would be the western unit for now, but when that fucking pipeline is but a 48”-diameter and 800-mile long tube of lip balm, the lands in between these two units of a vast arctic refuge can be added to make it all one. It’s a half-century plan, but a plan worth having.
This is a very dark time, not only for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge but also for federal public lands conservation nearly everywhere. During these bleak times, I am inspired by the resolve and words of others who faced dark times. To borrow some of Winston Churchill’s language from the time when the Nazis were at their zenith:
We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in the courts, we shall fight for the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the streets, we shall defend our refuges, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight the White House, we shall fight on the caribou calving grounds, we shall fight in the markets and on Wall Street, we shall fight in the Congress; we shall never surrender.