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Blue Planet: No rest for the ANWRy

By DAN WHIPPLE, UPI Science News   |   March 7, 2003 at 2:00 PM   |   Comments

Both sides of the debate over oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have become so deeply entrenched they are unlikely to be swayed much by a new report on the issue, even from the highly respected National Academy of Sciences.

Instead, each side is picking carefully from the scientists' smorgasbord of nuanced conclusions.

The report, prepared by the academy's National Research Council and examining the impact of 30 years of Alaskan oil production, documents some serious problems. But it is not an unqualified indictment of drilling in Arctic regions, as many environmentalists would argue.

To the contrary, the report, "Cumulative Environmental Effects of Oil and Gas Activities on Alaska's North Slope," suggests if drilling occurs in ANWR, damage to caribou herds -- the peg on which conservationists have hung much of their opposition -- would be minimal.

"Considerable research has been done on various actual and potential effects of oil and gas activity on the North Slope's physical, biotic, and human environments," the report said. "However, there has been little assessment of the cumulative effects of those activities, the elucidation of which is critical to support informed, long-term decision-making about resource management."

The report lists a host of environmental impacts from North Slope oil production. The impacts include a large physical "footprint," of activity, covering perhaps 1,000 square miles of drilling rigs, pads, roads, pipelines, structures and the like.

"Effects on wildland values -- especially visual ones -- extend much farther," the report states, "as can the effects on marine mammals of sound caused by offshore activities."

For example, there has been damage from off-road travel. Disruption from the construction of roads "have had effects as far-reaching and complex as any physical component of the North Slope oil fields."

On the other hand, the report's conclusions about effects on North Slope animals are much more circumspect. Bowhead whales, for example, on which native hunters rely for food, have had their migration patterns altered, "but the full extent of that displacement is not yet known." Because food is available from human activities, predator numbers are rising. This results in some declines of "reproductive success" of prey species -- the predators are ravaging their young offspring.

However, the Central Arctic Caribou Herd, after an initial decline, actually saw an increase in herd size from 1995 to 2000. The report speculates if the oil production activity spreads eastward -- in the direction of ANWR -- caribou reproductive success in that area could be reduced, depending on the size and distribution of the drilling activity.

On the other hand, oil spills -- once thought to be a major threat to the tender Arctic permafrost -- have been small, localized, and without cumulative impacts, the research council said.

The NRC report also expends some energy on analyzing socio-economic changes to Alaska natives, which have seen better schools, better health care, better housing and improved community services -- along with increased alcoholism, diabetes and circulatory diseases.

In return for these impacts, the United States has obtained 14 billion barrels of crude oil as of the end of 2002, or about 20 percent of domestic oil production since 1977.

The environmental community is hailing the report as validating its warnings about the hazards of Arctic drilling.

"The findings of this report confirm what we've been working on, and what most Americans believe and what the Senate believed when it voted against ANWR development," Lexi Keogh, communications director for the Alaska Wilderness League, told UPI's Blue Planet. "Oil and gas development doesn't belong in the refuge."

The most striking thing, Keogh said, "is that a lot of the impacts on wildlife and people are felt further away than they would have you believe. The footprint of industrial development doesn't define the extent of the impacts."

The sentiment is echoed by Alaska Sierra Club representative Sara Chapell.

"Congress now has some definitive arguments from scientists -- people without their own agenda -- and they're saying the impacts are real, the impacts are permanent," she told UPI. "It is done and likely is not going to go away."

The oil industry doesn't see it that way at all.

"The report said a lot of things that industry has been saying for a while," Mike Shanahan, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, told UPI. "There has been a revolution in the exploration and technology of drilling for oil. All of the newer activity in Alaska reflects that."

New techniques include the use of satellites, microprocessors, remote sensing and super computers to generate three-dimensional and four-dimensional time-lapse imaging of underground reservoirs. As a result, sharply increased drilling success rates have cut the numbers of both wells drilled and dry holes.

Directional and horizontal drilling allow companies to reach reservoirs in environmentally sensitive areas and in deep offshore waters. A single rig can explore and produce in a much wider area from one site, which reduces the "footprint." The industry also now uses durable forged alloys and polycrystalline diamonds to replace cast iron bits. This has improved worker safety, increased protection of wildlife habitat and open lands, and produced less toxic waste.

In Shanahan's view, the debate over ANWR is rooted in "old think" about oil exploration. "The industry has never said that there isn't any risk, but the risk has fallen by a significant amount," he said. "Some technology was designed specifically for Alaska and some is in use all over the world. The report seemed to acknowledge that. So in terms of a highly qualified neutral body drawing those conclusions, we think it's a good thing."

While the environmental impacts compiled by the report are undeniable, a lot of the emotional case against ANWR drilling has rested on potential negative impacts to the vast herd of caribou that uses the refuge. But caribou herd near the area of North Slope drilling actually has increased and the NRC report is surprisingly subdued about this issue. "It is not possible to predict to what degree the migrations and population sizes of caribou would be affected," it concluded

So it seems both sides of the ANWR argument can find some ammunition from the same report. One of Alaska's senators, Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, said in a news release: "The report debunks many of the arguments made against Arctic development. And it offers suggestions for mitigating the impacts of development that may prove useful."

Asked if the report would open room for compromise with environmental groups, API's Shanahan said, "I don't know, you'll have to answer your own question."

Asked the same question, Alaska Wilderness League's Keogh said, "I can't think of anything that we're doing together. I'm not talking to anybody over there."

So, absent a new set of stone tablets inscribed by the almighty, that is probably where things will stay.

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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