KTUU / NBC / November 16, 2005
Anchorage, Alaska - Although the issue of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is almost politically dead this year, it's still very much alive for next year. But two key questions remain: how much oil is actually in the refuge; and what would be the environmental cost of getting it out?
Just how much oil can be recovered from the vast, icy tundra depends mainly upon its price. According to a U.S. Geological Survey report published just last month, as long as oil stays above $42 a barrel, ANWR could be incredibly productive, with more than 9 billion barrels of oil economically recoverable.
"Huge. And I think there's no disagreement about that," said Judy Brady, Alaska Oil and Gas Association.
Oil industry representatives say America hasn't found an oil field like ANWR in decades.
"Well, 10 billion barrels is a lot of oil. It would be the second largest oil field in North America," said Ken Boyd, oil and gas consultant (right).
The largest field in North American history is Alaska's Prudhoe Bay, but if the USGS estimates are correct, ANWR could rival it. But Porcupine caribou stands between ANWR and oil development. Native subsistence hunters have depended on Porcupine caribou herds for years, and environmentalists say that if oil development harms the caribou, it would threaten a Native way of life that has gone on for millennia.
"It could devastate the communities that depend on the caribou herd for subsistence," said Betsy Goll, Sierra Club, Alaska.
But pro-development groups argue that the Porcupine caribou will not be harmed by oil exploration.
"If we're confident about anything, we're confident that oil and gas and caribou do very well together," said Brady (left).
Studies show that at neighboring Prudhoe Bay, the Central Arctic caribou herd has actually thrived since 1978.
"The fact is of the matter is that the only place we've actually studied this, the population of the caribou has increased seven-fold something like from 3,000 to 25,000 or whatever the numbers are," said Boyd.
But scientists aren't so sure that caribou that graze in ANWR will do as well the way Prudhoe Bay caribou has done.
University of Alaska Fairbanks research biologist Brad Griffith points out that Prudhoe Bay is located on a large, flat coastal plain. It's a plain so big that caribou can give birth to young miles from oil infrastructure.
"One of my graduate students has shown that the caribou that calved here in this heavily developed area of Prudhoe Bay and the Kuparak development area have shifted to the south," said Griffith (left).
But ANWR is more confined than Prudhoe Bay, and if caribou here choose to give birth to their young far from oil infrastructure, they could end up calving in the foothills of the Brooks Range, where predators are likely to kill their young.
"If you move them to the south and to the east, all these numbers become negative and you go into this magenta-colored zone, which is reduced calf survival," said Griffith.
One way to avoid disturbing caribou is by using a technology called directional drilling, which places a derrick outside of caribou calving areas and sends the drill bit underground, up to 30,000 feet away.
"So basically with one, one site, it would be possible to drill over a large area," said Dr. Wesley Wallace, UAF geologist (right).
"We wouldn't expect to see effects of, negative effects on caribou until the development had come east of this line," said Griffith.
Some biologists believe that directional drilling holds promise and if oil infrastructure can be confined western edge of ANWR, caribou might not suffer.
"If you were even to put directional drilling right on this, you could reach right under this calving ground and obtain oil without displacing these animals," Griffith said.
Directional drilling has had excellent results at both the Kuparak and Alpine oil fields on the North Slope, leading to drilling at those fields with a very small footprint on the landscape. The positive experience at Alpine leads some to believe that ANWR could be drilled using as little as 2,000 acres, a mere speck on the coastal plain.
"The 2,000 acre constraint is a red herring in my view," said Dr. John Schoen, chief scientist, Audubon Society (right).
But not everyone buys the notion of a tiny oil footprint in ANWR. Dr. John Schoen contents that while the drill pads at ANWR would be small, all the connecting infrastructure might not be.
"Then you could have connecting roads and pipelines and that is what the coastal plain could look like. And this could change the ecosystem of the coastal plain dramatically, including an impact on caribou," said Schoen.
So there are unanswered questions about the future of drilling in ANWR, but what about oil exploration in the past? Two decades ago, there was drilling in ANWR, in Kaktovik. The drilling in 1985 took place on Native lands within the jurisdiction of the Inupiat Eskimos of Northeastern Alaska. Two years later, in 1987, the scars from that drilling were still visible on the landscape.
Today the mayor of Kaktovik says those drilling scars are now almost completely gone.
"I think there's both good and bad that can come out of this," said Charlie Brower, resident.
While many people in Kaktovik have doubts about renewed drilling, most here seem to favor it.
"There's a whole bunch of us that are for drilling, but it has to be safe drilling," said Nora Jane Burns, Kaktovik resident.
Now six years ago on election day in Kaktovik, the mayor asked voters to fill out a questionnaire on whether they want ANWR drilling. Their answer is yes, by a margin of 75 percent. But whalers in the tiny community are worried and they're distributing a petition aimed at preventing offshore drilling there.
Most people in Kaktovik seem to want drilling. Drilling in ANWR is a societal value judgment, not a scientific one, but science needs to taken into account. And the latest science suggests that drilling, confined to the extreme eastern edge of ANWR, would minimize harm to caribou. But there's another issue, water. You need hundreds of millions of gallons of it to make ice roads. It's by no means clear if there is enough water in ANWR for that.
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