Being Green in ANWR

Written for a college class winter 2006. This is the first half of a two part essay that was assigned to be written on opposite sides of an issue.
It’s possible that you’re wondering what “green” has to do with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, also known as ANWR. It’s a tundra, the word “tundra” tends to bring to mind images of icy wastelands and the word “arctic” has an even more powerful connection to snow. So in a sea of white, what does green have to do with anything? In this case, when I talk about being green, I’m referring to an essay written by George F. Will called “Being Green and Ben and Jerry’s” and while it might sound like an essay written about ice cream, it actually spends a great deal of time discussing the debate over whether we should or should not open ANWR to commercial oil drilling. His article offers many arguments in favor of drilling for oil in the coastal plain of the tundra and that the end leaves the reader with the idea that we have a choice to make when it comes to this wildlife preserve. After reading his article and doing some homework of my own, I’ve come to disagree with his arguments and am unafraid of “being green.” My research has turned up a number of facts and information that has led me to one conclusion. The harms that will come from drilling in ANWR significantly outweigh the benefits.

Drilling for oil in ANWR will force out many animals that migrate to the area. The area that the Bush administration is proposing to open for drilling is the calving ground for a migrating herd of porcupine caribou, and a landing point for molting geese and ducks. The plan to open the area “would allow oil production facilities and pipelines throughout areas used by geese, which are rendered flightless by their annual molt” (Bishop). The impact of these production facilities is likely to be the same as those of similar facilities elsewhere in Alaska. There are many examples of what the oil industry can do to an area, the statistics speak for themselves. According to the Dayton City Paper “[t]he oil industry is responsible for an average of one spill every day, 55 contaminated waste sites, and twice the nitrogen oxide air pollution as Washington D.C.” One spill is enough to kill a flock of geese while they are molting. The geese aren’t the only animals that will be pushed out of their habitat by oil development because the 1002 area of ANWR is also the calving grounds of a herd of porcupine caribou. Every year these animals migrate to this area to rear their young, and without this important location, “researchers have shown that caribou calf survival rates drop significantly when the herd is unable to calve on the coastal plain” (Norrell). This evidence suggests that even in the best case scenario, the numbers of porcupine caribou will reduce by half in a single generation. If the size of the herd is reduced that much, that quickly, they will either eventually die out, or move on to greener pastures. This will drastically change the shape of the environment that ANWR was originally set aside to protect.

While there may be greener pastures for the caribou and the geese, the Gwich’in people have built their society around an ecosystem that is destined to change once commercialized drilling is approved. The Gwich’in are a Native American group that have survived off of the herd of caribou for generations. They’ve used them as a food source, and a source of clothing and shelter during the cold, icy nights on the tundra. According to Richard J. Wilson, the director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at a university in Washington D.C, their culture and way of life is so intertwined with the ecosystem that “[a]ny serious decline in the herd would effectively destroy their way of life, and that is the very real risk of drilling” (Wilson as qtd in “Norrell”). Without the caribou, the Gwich’in can’t survive with their current lifestyle. In fact, they have a right to live off the land because subsistence living is protected under International law. Wilson states that, “these rights are interpreted at a global level by various international bodies to which the United States is accountable, including various mechanisms of the United Nations” (Wilson as qtd in “Norrell”). The needs of the Gwich’in people are protected under International law, and are being ignored by lawmakers who are desperate for ANWR’s oil. This ignorance is not only placing the Gwich’in people in danger of losing their way of life, but also presents a very real danger to the entire tundra.

The benefits of drilling are small when compared to the potential for significant negative impact on the tundra. According to the United States Geological Survey, the area proposed for drilling contains “about 10 billion barrels of oil […] in […] the refuge’s 1002 area, the portion of ANWR the Bush administration hopes to open to development through legislation” (Spangler). Ten billion barrels seems like a lot of oil, but it really isn’t very much when put into context with our rate of consumption. According to Charles J. Dibona, president of the American Petroleum Institute, “Americans use about 6.2 billion barrels of oil annually” (as qtd in Sommers-Tumulty). A little basic math reveals that the potential amount of oil in the proposed drilling area will sustain America’s needs for just under two years. That’s scarcely long enough to slake off our dependence on foreign sources of oil. In addition to the small amount of recoverable oil, there is the very real likelihood that the USGS’s estimates of recoverable oil do not take into account the economic needs of oil companies with regard to development of the area. The executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, Judy Brady, “expects there to be a disparity between the technically and economically recoverable estimates, largely due to expensive environmental constraints” (as qtd in Spangler). The amount of oil produced by opening drilling in ANWR is very likely to be less than the amount of oil that is actually present which further minimizes the usefulness of this area for reducing our dependence on foreign oil. With the minimal returns in mind, it’s also important to pay attention to how the oil companies have managed their drilling projects in other similarly environmentally sensitive areas as shown by the statistics from the Dayton City Paper. It’s not too hard to imagine the sort of damage that will result in the Porcupine caribou calving grounds if they are opened to drilling. Long term environmental damage to the area is not only possible, it’s likely and even one spill is enough to impact the area for decades to come. In 1989, when the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, we learned just how damaging a single oil spill can be. The immediate impact to the environment was obvious, thousands of animals died in the weeks that followed the spill. The long term impact has been much more subtle, “[r]esearchers said that some shoreline habitats, such as contaminated mussel beds, could take up to 30 years to recover” (D’Oro). The damage in Prince William Sound, and the impact that we still see today from the spill gives cause for concern. Researchers have shown that “[w]hat happened in Prince William Sound illustrates the critical need for better environmental protections to guard against chronic exposure of pollutants” (D’Oro). In spite of protections currently in place, the oil industry is still polluting the Alaskan environment.

It seems very easy to understand the oil issue on the surface. Americans use a lot of oil. Everything in our way of life is connected to the oil industry in one form or another. If we aren’t driving our cars to work, trucks are hauling our food to the grocery store. We are dependent on transportation in one form or another and for the time being, our transportation is dependent on oil. In the face of these simple facts, it’s not too hard to see why oil companies and our government are desperate to get their hands on every single drop of oil that they can find. However, because we are so technologically advanced that we hardly need to use our feet to get anywhere, we have the capability to find alternative fuel sources and protect the environment from pollutants. Having that capability also bestows a responsibility on us to use that technology to protect every one and everything else that shares the Earth with us, even if they aren’t human. Maybe it’s silly to think that way, but I want to look out my window and find green trees staring me in the face for the rest of my life, and I want future generations to have that experience too. That can’t happen if we don’t take care of the environment. If taking care of the environment means that I’m green, then Mr. Will is hereby cordially invited to call me green.

Annotated Bibliography

Bishop, Sam “North Slope Mayor Against Drilling Plan” 7. Feb 2006 Fairbanks Daily News- Miner 17 Jan. 2006.

This article discusses the local concerns over opening ANWR for drilling. I used several quotes from this article to illustrate those concerns about the negative impact that commercial drilling will have on the local wildlife.

Dayton City Paper “Why Environmentalists Oppose Drilling.” Dayton City Paper 23. March 2005. Alt-Press Watch (APW) Proquest.

This article is a list of ten reasons why environmentalists oppose drilling in ANWR. It contained some basic statistics that I used to express the dangers of oil drilling in any area, let alone an ecologically sensitive one.

D’Oro, Rachel “Effects of Oil Spill from Exxon Valdez May Last Decades” Columbian 20. Dec. 2003. Proquest

D’Oro’s article shows how an oil spill fifteen years old at the time the article was published, can still have a negative impact on the local wildlife. Her article provided support for my idea that environmental damage is not easy to fix.

Norrell, Brenda “Drilling Would Violate International Law” Indian Country Today 2. Nov. 2005, A5. Ethnic News Watch (ENW) Proquest

Norrell interviewed several people on the matter of the environmental impact of oil drilling. The quotes taken from her article are used to explain the extent of the potential damage in ANWR, and also bring to light the plight of the Gwich’in people, a native Eskimo tribe that is desperately fighting to end the plans to open the refuge for drilling

Sommers, Constance, Tumulty, Karen “Energy Tax Will Cost Too Much, Oil Council Says” Los Angeles Times 23. Feb. 1993. Proquest

This article provided a source for a general number for the amount of oil Americans consume in a day. Varying numbers were found throughout the course of my research, but none were sourced to a reliable source.

Spangler, Matt “USGS Says Central Part of North Slope has Less Oil but More Gas than ANWR” Inside Energy 16. May 2005 pg 8. Proquest

Spangler’s article provided a source for the amount of oil that was potentially recoverable in the challenged area of ANWR. I found many other numbers, but none were specific to the challenged area. It also gave me support for the idea that just because oil is technically recoverable, does not mean that it is economically recoverable.