Myths About Drilling in ANWR

Drilling for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge makes so much sense, it’s no wonder opponents have to twist the facts to turn it into a controversy.

We’re talking about 10 billion barrels of domestic oil located in an area with a proven track record for environmentally responsible drilling. Yet a host of tall tales from environmental activists and like-minded journalists has made it a tough fight in Washington.

Congress is currently deciding whether to add ANWR drilling to the defense appropriations bill. Given the continued high oil prices and political turmoil in many oil-producing nations, now might be the best chance to get ANWR done. But it will happen only if the ANWR myths are exposed. Here are several:

ANWR Drilling Would Harm Alaska’s Environment.

Some perspective is helpful to understand the ecological insignificance of ANWR drilling. ANWR comprises 19 million acres in Northeast Alaska, 17.5 million of which are totally off-limits to drilling or any other kind of economic activity. This is why the news footage showing beautiful snowcapped mountains is misleading, because the drilling would not be allowed anywhere near those areas.

Only the flat and featureless coastal plain would be affected, and even there only a small portion of its 1.5 million acres. The current version of the bill limits the surface disturbance to 2,000 acres, a small piece of a big coastal plain in a very big wildlife refuge in the biggest state in the Union.

Oil Wells Would Despoil One Of The Few Remaining Pristine Places.

Again, the vast majority of ANWR will be completely unaffected by drilling. It would occur only on a small part of the coastal plain where there already is some human habitation. There are plenty of truly pristine places in Alaska worth preserving, but ANWR’s coastal plain isn’t one of them.

As it is, Alaska has 141 million acres of protected lands, an area equal to the size of California and New York combined.

Drilling Is Incompatible With The Purpose Of National Wildlife Refuges.

Drilling critics have tried to confuse wildlife refuges with national parks, wilderness areas and other more highly protected categories of federal lands. But national wildlife refuges typically allow limited mining, logging, drilling, ranching or other activities.

Indeed, the statute creating ANWR contemplated future oil production on the coastal plain, subject to congressional approval.

It is worth noting that another wildlife refuge in Alaska, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, has had drilling onsite for decades. The oil production there rarely makes the news because it has not caused any problems, even though Kenai has far more wildlife than ANWR.

Oil Development Harms Local Wildlife.

An extensive track record proves otherwise. In addition to Kenai, Alaska has oil drilling in the Prudhoe Bay field, only 55 miles west of ANWR. Prudhoe Bay has produced more than 10 billion barrels of oil since the 1970s, which has been transported through the Alaska pipeline to the American market. Decades of studies show that this oil production has had a negligible impact on the environment.

Environmental opponents of drilling cannot point to a single species that has been driven to extinction or even a population decline attributable to Prudhoe Bay. In addition, the drilling there was done with decades-old technology and methods far less environmentally sensitive than what would be required in ANWR.

The Caribou Herds Will be Devastated.

Environmentalists have been particularly excessive in predicting dire harm to the herd of migrating caribou that passes through ANWR. But the caribou herd that migrates through Prudhoe Bay has increased from 3,000 to 23,000 since drilling commenced there in 1977.

Alaskans Oppose ANWR Drilling.

In fact, polls regularly show 75 percent or more of Alaskans support drilling. This includes the native Alaskans who live in the vicinity of the area where ANWR drilling would occur, although the few who oppose drilling get most of the media attention.

Alaskans know from first-hand experience that resource extraction can co-exist with environmental protection. They also know how silly the environmental gloom and doom predictions are, as they have been hearing such nonsense for decades.

If the average American, and his or her representative in Congress, knew the facts as well as the average Alaskan, ANWR drilling wouldn’t be controversial in the first place. Fortunately, it’s not too late for Congress to take the common sense step and boost domestic oil supplies by passing legislation allowing ANWR drilling.

Ben Lieberman is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.