The recent oil spill at Valdez, Alaska, and its catastrophic effect on the ecology of Prince William Sound has brought another Alaskan environmental controversy to the forefront: the proposed oil development of the 1.5 million acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Located in northeastern Alaska along the Beaufort Sea, the coastal plain is home to more than 160 species of wildlife. Barren and snow covered in winter, it bursts into life in the spring as the tundra fills with wildflowers, caribou, bears, and thousands of birds.The Department of the Interior admits that "long-term losses in fish and wildlife resources . . . and wilderness values would be the inevitable consequences of a long-term commitment to oil and gas development."
Yet oil companies argue that a landmark reserve of oil lies beneath the plain. They warn that the United States will become dependent on foreign oil if it fails to tap this source. These companies insist they have proven their ability to drill in an environmentally sound manner at their facilities in nearby Prudhoe Bay, 50 miles to the west.
What are the facts?
According to the Interior Department, there is a 19 percent chance that economically recoverable oil will be found. The estimated output would provide less than a 200-day supply given the present domestic rate of consumption.
More than 55 million acres of arctic Alaskan land and the vast majority of the arctic coastline is open to oil and gas development. Proven in-place arctic reserves of as much as 20 billion barrels remain untapped outside the refuge.
Arctic oil is very expensive to produce. Recent studies show that it is more economical to drill for new oil in old places. According to geologists, "infill drilling" can recover up to 48 billion barrels from existing domestic reservoirs for less than new arctic development drilling.
If the oil spill at Valdez highlights the potential for a single error to become a full-scale environmental disaster, then the effects of development at Prudhoe Bay demonstrate the destruction from cumulative impacts.
This area has suffered extensive damage from the effects of chronic pollution, despite oil industry assurances to the contrary.
A scientific report released in January 1988 shows a lack of industry compliance with regulations, inadequate oversight of operations, missing data on environmental impacts, and lax federal and state restrictions and enforcement on development activities and resultant pollution.
There have been more than 17,000 reported oil spills since 1973. Nitrogen oxide emissions nearly equal those of Chicago. The detrimental effects of ineffective disposal of hazardous wastes and drilling byproducts, severe under any circumstances, are greatly magnified on the Alaskan tundra with its short growing season and scarce fresh water supply.
The land polluted by this development cannot be reclaimed. No technology exists today that mitigates these impacts.
The energy crisis Americans fear is largely one of our own making. The absence of a clear national energy policy has placed an unrealistic burden on an already overtaxed environment to provide for our ever-increasing energy needs with non-renewable resources.
During the Reagan administration, funding for energy conservation measures and development of renewable energy sources was cut by up to 85 percent. Yet the U.S. Department of Energy notes that resources such as solar, wind, and geothermal energy make up one of the nation's greatest energy reserves, and could meet up to 80 percent of U.S. projected energy needs by the beginning of the 21st century.
Like it or not, there is a finite supply of domestic oil. Middle East supplies will long outlast our own. Our energy independence is not contingent upon a six-month supply of oil from the Arctic refuge. It will be the result of foresight and planning, better energy conservation and the utilization of renewable resources.
By avoiding discussion of alternatives, we play a deadly game of Russian roulette with not only our natural resources but our long-term national security and productivity. There are no simple solutions to meeting our future energy needs. But we need not sacrifice our last intact arctic ecosystem in the name of energy independence.