It’s Just Not Worth It: Potential Monetary Benefits from Oil Drilling in the Alaskan Refuge Will Be Greatly Outweighed by the Disastrous Impacts on the Environment, and Specifically, Local Wildlife Georgetown International Environmental Law Review

Lilia Komleva Title Card

It’s Just Not Worth It: Potential Monetary Benefits from Oil Drilling in the Alaskan Refuge Will Be Greatly Outweighed by the Disastrous Impacts on the Environment, and Specifically, Local Wildlife

By Lilia Komleva, Staff Contributor

The coastal plain of America’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) located on the North Slope of Alaska along the Arctic coastline serves as a home to some of the world’s most fascinating animals. It is a critical reservoir of biodiversity, not just in the United States, but in the world. The Refuge contains the largest land denning habitat for American polar bears in the entire Arctic Alaska. Additional species found in the Refuge include moose, wolverines, golden eagles, and peregrine falcons.

Two weeks ago, President Obama announced that his administration planned to lock up the oil-rich 1.5 million-acre coastal plain of ANWR, also known as the “1002 area,” and offshore areas in Alaska from oil and gas exploration. The next step would require Congress to designate more than 12 million acres of the ANWR as wilderness, the most protective status that can be afforded by law, thereby protecting the area from any oil and gas-related development.

“[The ANWR] is a critical reservoir of biodiversity, not just in the United States, but in the world.”

The ANWR has spurred heated debates for decades. The Refuge is the only area on Alaska’s North Slope in which Congress has specifically prohibited oil exploration pursuant to the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. The Act not only protected over 100 million acres of federal lands in Alaska from development, but also tripled the amount of land designated as wilderness. President Obama’s recent proposal to extend wilderness protection to the coastal plain of the ANWR has reopened this debate, which has centered on the following question: how should we balance our increasing energy consumption needs with environmental conservation?

Unfortunately, the President’s proposal faces a tough challenge: many members of the House of Representatives and the Senate are “pro-drilling.” Those proponents claim that the drilling on the coastal plain could potentially bring in anywhere between 5.7 billion and 16 billion barrels of oil. The truth is, however, that beyond geologists’ estimates, there is no affirmative proof that oil of a desired quality exists under ANWR’s coastal plain. But this is not the main issue: regardless of how much oil lies beneath the coastal plain, oil and gas exploration and development in this unique and vitally important wilderness preserve is a highly unattractive proposition due to the significantly negative ecological consequences that would result from such wide-scale human intrusion.

“…regardless of how much oil lies beneath the coastal plain, oil and gas exploration and development in this unique and vitally important wilderness preserve is a highly unattractive proposition…”

Some who oppose the ecologists’ position argue that no one ever visits the Arctic during the cold eight-month winter; that unlike Yellowstone or other national parks, there is not much to see other than empty white surface, and therefore, it is better that the ANWR be utilized for the residents of Alaska, where the state budget is largely funded by oil. Alaskans themselves are concerned that Obama’s intentions could endanger Alaska’s economic future. Furthermore, proponents of oil exploration argue that wildlife can coexist with responsible energy exploration. For instance, some scientists posit that drilling pads will not take up much of the ANWR’s land surface, and that animals can easily walk around such pads. Yet, many species need for survival land that one might not perceive as beautiful or even necessary. Moreover, accurately predicting the ecological effects of oil and gas development in a yet largely untouched area is difficult.

The ANWR’s coastal plain provides a vital habitat for many wild animals, including, for instance, the troubled Caribou herd. The proposed drilling area is crucial for the caribou for many reasons: first, it provides them with a migration corridor; second, only along the coast can caribous get enough steady wind to save themselves and their newborns from blood-sucking insects, which otherwise would endanger the caribous’ survival. The coastal plain also serves as Alaska’s most important onshore habitat for female polar bears that dig maternal dens in which they give birth to their cubs. Moreover, the plain is a refuge to grizzly bears and polar bears and provides nesting grounds for many species of migratory birds.

Is it worth jeopardizing the future existence of such precious and endangered wildlife to gain potential, even if substantial, monetary benefits? Oil prices are at an all time low, and the possible demand for more oil is uncertain given the rise of attractive and reliable renewable and non-traditional energy technologies. In my view, we should be protecting these areas regardless of what the oil situation will look like. I am hopeful Obama’s proposal will not only bring the deserved attention to this matter, but that it will also be a big step towards more adequately protecting this unique area.

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