By Donella Meadows
–May 19, 1988–
“The North Slope is a flat, crummy place. Only for oil would anyone want to go there,” says an official of the Arco Oil & Gas Company.
The May issue of Audubon shows picture after glorious picture from that “flat, crummy place” — muskox, tundra swan, Arctic fox, snowy owl, brilliant wildflowers, braided rivers, and magnificent mountains, all in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge of northern Alaska.
A bill currently before Congress would open up the Refuge to oil exploration. Since oil prices are low, the oil companies are not seeking new wells now. But they feel an understandable urgency to gain the right to drill in the Refuge before the Reagan administration leaves office.
The debate is heating up. Voices are rising. Claims are contradictory. Either the opportunity to make the last major on-shore oil discovery in the United States is about to be lost, or a pristine wilderness is about to be lost, depending on who’s talking.
The American Petroleum Institute: “The petroleum industry cares about the special ecological and wildlife values of the Arctic and works hard and spends great sums to protect them. The record at Prudhoe Bay proves we have been good stewards of the land.”
A slick, colorful publication of the Exxon Corporation: “North Slope oil is now providing about one-fourth of all domestic oil production with no significant impact on the ecologically sensitive Alaskan environment.”
An equally slick, colorful publication of the National Audubon Society shows black smoke pouring into the sky at Prudhoe Bay, bulldozers, drilling rigs, and garbage dumps. There have been 23,000 oil spills there. A report to Congress by the Fish and Wildlife Service says that oil activities have stripped 11,000 acres of Arctic vegetation and have reduced the numbers of most bird species.
John F. Seiberling, chairman of the Alaska Lands Subcommittee of the Congress: “Twenty of twenty-one major waste-storage pits at Prudhoe were found … to violate Environmental Protection Agency standards, discharging toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and carcinogens into wetland habitats.”
Vice-President Bush: “I’d like to see us open up that Alaska refuge. It was said once, remember, when they built the pipeline, ‘Don’t build the pipeline, you get rid of the caribou.’ The caribou love it. They rub up against it and have babies. There are more caribou in Alaska than you can shake a stick at.”
The caribou population has increased around Prudhoe Bay, but not, says the Fish and Wildlife Service, because of the aphrodisiac effect of pipelines. The roads constructed by the oil industry have opened the area to hunters, who have decimated the populations of bear and wolf, predators of the caribou.
Oliver Leavitt of Barrow, vice-president of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation: “Environmentalists don’t give you hospitals, roads, housing, water, and sewers.”
The mayor of the North Slope village of Kaktovik: “You can’t move the oil somewhere else. It’s there, and this country is going to get it sooner or later. I believe we can get it in a way that will not cause significant damage.”
According to Audubon the “full leasing” scenario would bring to the Refuge four airfields, three hundred miles of road, one hundred miles of pipeline, two desalinization plants, seven large production facilities, fifty to sixty drilling pads, ten to fifteen gravel pits, and a seaport or two.
L.G. Rawl, Chairman of the Exxon Corporation: “The entire nation will forfeit potentially substantial economic benefits if oil exploration of this narrow strip of tundra — about one-half of 1 percent of Alaska — is unduly delayed.”
Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute: “Leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has an 81% chance of finding no economically recoverable oil; a 19% chance of finding oil averaging a six-month national supply; a 1% chance of a year and a half’s worth; and a 100% chance of trashing the refuge. If such poor odds of so little oil are ‘vital to our national security’, why cut new-car standards from 27.5 to 26 miles a gallon — thus wasting more oil per year, with 100% certainty, than unlikely success in the Refuge could yield?”
An Anchorage bumper sticker: “Please, God, send just one more oil boom. I promise I won’t blow it next time!”
Former New Mexico Senator Clinton Anderson: “Wilderness is an anchor to windward. Knowing it is there, we can also know that we are still a rich nation, tending to our resources as we should — not a people in despair searching every last nook and cranny of our land for a board of lumber, a barrel of oil, a blade of grass, or a tank of water.”
It’s your Wildlife Refuge and mine. It’s our oil, too, if there is any. If you would like to know more about the Refuge and the (possible) oil, any petroleum company will be pleased to tell you one side of the story. The May issue of Audubon will tell you the other. If you would like to be part of the decision, let your Congressman know what you think. Do it soon.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988