Friday, March 9, 2001

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Is a Treasure to Preserve

Sara Callaghan Chapell, Sierra Club Alaska staff

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is an amazing and inspiring place. Visitors tell of its stunning vistas, unique wildlife and untouched landscape. Scientists note the importance of the refuge as habitat for hundreds of species and the crucial role it plays in Alaska's web of life.

The Gwich'in--native Alaskans who live nearby--depend on the caribou that give birth in the refuge for food, clothing, and spiritual sustenance. And the refuge is also an important part of America's heritage. But despite the value of the arctic refuge--to people, wildlife, and posterity--President Bush has announced that he intends to open the area to oil drilling.

Doing so would be an unconscionable mistake: just as we would not flood the Grand Canyon for hydropower or cap Old Faithful for steam, we must not drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The first reason is the simplest: there's not very much oil in the refuge. Estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey find that there is only a six-month supply of economically recoverable oil. Opening the refuge will have no effect on oil prices because the supply is too small and Persian Gulf oil too cheap.

In fact, because the United States has only 3 percent of the world's oil reserves, opening all of our coasts, forests and wild places to drilling would barely nudge world oil prices.

Many proponents of drilling have pointed to recent price spikes as a reason to drill. But any oil discovered in the refuge would not be available for at least a decade. And getting this oil down to the lower 48 states will be no small feat, either. It will require environmentally destructive pipelines, pumping stations and sprawling industrial infrastructure.

When Congress protected the arctic refuge from exploitation, the oil industry blocked efforts to safeguard a crescent of land called the coastal plain. The problem is that this sliver of coastline is the biological heart of the refuge--it's where polar bear have their dens, where massive herds of caribou come to birth their calves, and where migratory birds from every state flock in the summer. Drilling for oil will destroy the unique plants on which caribou, musk oxen, wolves, polar bears and other animals depend for survival.

Those who are in favor claim that new "environmentally friendly" techniques will reduce the impact. But in Alaska we've learned that you cannot drill for oil without spilling oil. And if nearby Prudhoe Bay is any indication, drilling for oil in the refuge will surely destroy it.

Prudhoe Bay oil fields generate twice as much air pollution as Washington, D.C. The area suffers more than 400 spills a year of oil or related pollution. In February, a BP Amoco facility dumped thousands of gallons of oil into the environment. In January 20,000 gallons of drilling "mud" (a petroleum-based lubricant) spilled from one of Prudhoe Bay's newest facilities.

The upshot is that there are far better, easier, and cheaper places to drill for oil--not to mention a host of ways to make better use of the oil and gas we already have. Requiring SUVs and light trucks to get the same mileage per gallon as cars would save more oil within 10 years than would ever be produced from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

For these reasons we should encourage our Representatives in Congress to support permanent protection for the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Legislation sponsored by Representatives Ed Markey (D-MA) and Nancy Johnson (R-CT) in the House and Senator Lieberman (D-CT) in the Senate would do just that. The House bill, HR 770, and its Senate counterpart, S.411, would provide much deserved permanent protection to this vast and unique wilderness.

Sara Callaghan Chapell is the Sierra Club's Alaska representative.

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