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Drill In Arctic Refuge, Interior Secretary Says

by J.R. Pegg

Interior Secretary Lied To Congress, Watchdog Group Says (Oct 2001)
Map of Alaska showing Area 1002 (Map courtesy FWS)
(ENS) WASHINGTON -- The economic and security risks of the nation's continued dependence on foreign oil are far too great for the United States not to start oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), Interior Secretary Gale Norton told members of Congress today.

ANWR is a "an area of flat, white nothingness," Norton said, and oil production from the refuge would mean increased energy security and more jobs for Americans.

"The coastal plain is this nation's single greatest prospect for onshore oil," Norton said. "We can develop energy at home while protecting the environmental values we all hold dear."

Norton is arguing for oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge just two days before her Department celebrates the 100th anniversary of the entire system of national wildlife refuges for which it is responsible. The system was begun by President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, on March 14, 1903.

Democrats on the committee took issue with Norton's portrayal of ANWR and blasted the Bush administration for not pursuing meaningful increases in fuel economy standards, which they contend would have a much more immediate impact on reducing the nation's thirst for oil.

The refuge is the "wrong place" to look for energy security, said Representative Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat.

"The value of ANWR should never be measured in barrels of oil," Markey said at today's hearing. "It is priceless, a national environmental treasure that should never be sacrificed."

Norton testified in favor of a House bill to allow drilling in ANWR, but there are signs such a bill may not be necessary. The Senate is expected to add a provision to open ANWR to drilling onto a budget resolution as early as Thursday.

Several Democratic Senators, including Joe Lieberman of Connecticut John Kerry of Massachusetts, have said they will fight tooth and nail to prevent drilling in ANWR, but Republicans believe they may be only one vote away from support needed put language to allow drilling into a budget provision.

Such a provision is almost certain to pass in the House of Representatives which is dominated by Republicans.

Today's hearing came a day after a legal front opened in the battle over ANWR. Four environmental groups filed suit against the Bush administration and Norton's agency for refusing to release information about discussions with energy industry executives and lobbyists to drill in the ANWR.

Filed in DC Federal District Court by the Sierra Club, the Alaska Wilderness League, Defenders of Wildlife and the Wilderness Society, the lawsuit alleges that two separate Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to make public communications about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, including any communications with the oil industry or associations and lobbying groups, were ignored by the Interior Department.

"We need to know if the administration has more information about the dangers to wildlife and the environment from drilling in the Arctic Refuge," said Defenders of Wildlife President Rodger Schlickeisen.

"If the Bush administration is confident about their decision to drill, they should make the information public," he said.

The Interior Department did not return calls for comment on the lawsuit.

The debate over the future of ANWR is focused on 1.5 million acres, known as Area 1002, within the 19.5 million acre refuge. This area was designated for possible oil and gas exploration in 1980 under the administration of Democratic President Jimmy Carter. An effort to allow drilling was narrowly defeated in the Senate last year.

More than 100 species of wildlife and birds rely on the coastal plain of the refuge, including the Porcupine caribou herd, polar bears, wolves, grizzly bears, muskoxen, and arctic foxes.

Many environmentalists consider the ANWR the crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System and contend that Area 1002 is the ecological heart of the refuge. They say that 95 percent of Alaska's North Slope is already open to oil and gas development.

A study released last week by the National Academy of Sciences on the cumulative effects of drilling on the North Slope found that environmental harm from oil drilling had accumulated and will last for centuries.

Opponents of drilling believe it would cause lasting environmental harm to the ANWR as well, but Norton downplayed these fears and said the administration is committed to minimizing the impact to the wildlife and ecology of the tundra.

New drilling technologies that eliminate the need for off road seismic drilling, Norton explained, as well as industry improvements that have reduced the footprints of oil platforms, will help assure that the environmental impact is minimal.

"The legislation doesn't ask developers to use new technology, it demands the best available technology," Norton said. "It doesn't just ask that equipment be removed and the land be restored, it demands that whatever is taken in be taken out and that wildlife be restored."

"It doesn't just ask that wildlife be protected, it demands it," Norton said. "If exploration interferes with migration or calving, we will shut it down."

But critics of the bill say none of the language on these issues is binding and are wary that the Interior Secretary's determination to minimize the environmental impacts will equal the reality of drilling in the refuge.

"Oil and pristine environments simply do not mix," testified Peter Van Tuyn, litigation director for Trustees for Alaska, a public interest law firm whose mission is to provide legal counsel to sustain and protect Alaska's natural environment.

"We can not drill our way to energy security," National Wildlife Federation's Jamie Rappaport Clark told the committee.

Short term energy problems should not "blind us to forever damaging" ANWR, said Clark, who served as director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under President Bill Clinton.

Clark bristled at the argument made by several proponents of the bill that the choice is either national security or the preservation of ANWR.

"That is just a false argument," she told ENS. "ANWR was knowingly set aside to protect wildlife and it should remain that way."

The energy independence argument was countered by Democrats on the committee, who said the nation's dependence on oil calls for a shift toward technologies that lessen that dependence, not drilling in a national refuge.

A better strategy, Markey said, would be for the administration to push for increased fuel economy standards.

Norton says the Bush administration is pushing for the "largest increase ever" for fuel economy standards for sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and light trucks and has formed an initiative to promote hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles.

The proposed 1.5 mile per gallon increase in fuel efficiency for SUVs and light trucks is being challenged by American automakers.

Markey responded that the administration is in "technological denial" of the contradictory nature of its policies.

The administration, Norton said, plans to use the estimated $1.2 billion from the initial ANWR drilling permits and revenues to further fund the hydrogen fuel cell initiative.

Norton said the further proceeds from drilling in ANWR would be split 50/50 between the federal government and the state of Alaska, but the bill is silent on this issue.

The bill would fall back on the Alaska Statehood Act, which calls for the federal government to receive only 10 percent of the proceeds and the state of Alaska to receive 90 percent.

Alaskan politicians have used the 90 percent figure to court state support for drilling, and Democrats on the committee raised concern that the bill could prompt lawsuits over revenues if passed.

A representative for Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski would not say the governor would abide by a 50/50 split, but urged Congress to open ANWR for the sake of native Alaskans.

"It is critical to economic development of the state and energy security of the nation and to the Inupiat Eskimo people," said Tara Sweeney, special assistant to the Alaska governor for rural affairs.

Sweeney, an Inupiat Eskimo, said that "oil development is our only economy."

"It provides our jobs, our tax base and our essential public services," she said.

But the other Alaskan Native American tribe that resides in the Alaskan Arctic, the Gwich'in, is adamantly opposed to drilling in the refuge. A representative of the tribe was not permitted to testify at Tuesday's hearing.

Van Tuyn contends that the oil and gas industry are not "chomping at the bit" to drill in ANWR.

There was not "one industry representative from a major petroleum company" at the hearing, he said.

The major oil companies are looking elsewhere, he told ENS, because ANWR is not an economically attractive place to drill for oil.

How much oil can be recovered from the refuge is a contentious point in the debate. Norton told the committee that government estimates range from 5.7 billion to 16 billion barrels of oil within Area 1002, with the mean value of technically recoverable oil coming in at 10.4 billion barrels.

The official estimate from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which was last revised in 1998, found that the mean value of the total quantity of technically recoverable oil in the 1002 area is 7.7 billion barrels.

But the term "technically recoverable" is not the same as "economically recoverable," which many believe is a more accurate figure. This figure takes into account the cost of finding, developing, producing and transporting the oil to market based on a 12 percent return on investment after taxes.

For example, using 1996 dollars, the USGS estimated that at $24 per barrel, there is a 95 percent chance that at least two billion barrels can be economically recovered and a five percent probability that 9.4 billion barrels are economically recoverable.

The mean of this estimate is at least 5.2 billion barrels of oil is economically recoverable at $24 per barrel.

Oil prices have risen above $35 per barrel in recent days, but USGS estimates do not show a significant increase in economically recoverable oil at these levels. The agency's mean amount of oil that is economically recoverable changes little from $24 per barrel and upward.

There is additional debate as to how quickly oil from ANWR could get to market, with industry estimates predicting it would take about 10 years to get a meaningful amount into the nation's supply.

But conflicting representations of how much oil is there and how quickly it can be pulled from ANWR have done little to curtail the desire of the administration and its allies to open the refuge.

"It will happen and I will stay here until it is done," Alaska Republican Congressman Don Young told the committee. "I'll live to be 150 years old if I have to."

© 2003 Environment News Service and reprinted with permission

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