The Fight for the Arctic
A One-Way War of Attrition
April 1, 2005



Folks who care about the environment tend to take an uncompromising stance on some issues. That's probably because nearly every loss is essentially permanent. Mines, oil fields, and other industrial developments never revert to forests, wetlands, or prairies. Profiteers simply use up these lands and then move on to something else. There is always someone eager to profit from environmental destruction so the fight is endless. As our shared environment is eroded over time, we find ourselves in a less hospitable world, with less wilderness, dirtier water and air, and a diminished legacy for the future.


For two decades environmentally unconscious politicians, urged on by political contributions from the oil lobby, have often tried to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. So far their efforts have been unsuccessful because public opposition caused all such legislation to fail. Now, with rising oil prices many people are changing their minds, even though destroying the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will do almost nothing but make the richest companies on earth a little richer.

There are numerous reasons to preserve the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Here are just a few:

1. Oil from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge represents a fortune for a few large corporations, but it is not significant in terms of our energy independence or the price we pay at the gas pump. Potential oil reserves in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are tiny when compared to those in the existing Prudhoe Bay oil fields, much less those in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Because the potential amount of oil from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is so small, foreign suppliers could still alter their production to compensate for any gains from the refuge. Only 3% of the world's oil reserves lie within the 50 United States, including the reserves in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but the United States accounts for 25% of the world's oil consumption. Because of this, energy independence is impossible if oil is supplying the energy. Given our huge consumption, this is true regardless of what we do with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

2. A one mile per gallon improvement in the efficiency of the average automobile would save a half million barrels of oil each day, forever. That’s far more than we can ever hope to extract from the Arctic refuge. In total, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge contains approximately the amount of oil the United States uses in one year. If the oil companies are allowed to drill in the refuge, they would destroy forever America’s finest remaining wilderness and wildlife habitat for an extremely small and short-term gain.

3. It would take about ten years of environmental destruction in the form of mining, road building, industrial construction, and drilling, before any oil from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could reach consumers. Then, the consumers will likely be in countries other than the United States. There is no guarantee that oil from the refuge would ever reach American consumers because Alaska’s congressional delegates are strongly pushing to resume selling Alaskan oil to China, Korea, Japan and other foreign countries where it commands higher prices. Much of the oil produced by the Prudhoe Bay fields has already found its way to foreign markets.

4. Some politicians and the oil industry falsely claim the "footprint" of development would be less than the size of Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C. This ridiculous claim counts only the area of the oil drilling pads themselves. It does not include the industrial complex that would spread like a spider web across virtually the entire coastal plain. Supporting the oil drilling pads requires hundreds of miles of roads and feeder pipelines, refineries, living quarters for hundreds of workers, sanitary facilities, landfills, water reservoirs, docks and gravel causeways, production plants, gas processing facilities, seawater treatment plants, power plants, and huge gravel mines. It should be obvious to anyone that such activities will change America's most pristine wilderness into just another remote industrial area. It should also be noted that gravel is often mined from river beds, destroying fisheries. 

5. Despite claims by the big oil companies that they can drill and have drilled responsibly on Alaska’s North Slope, spills are commonplace. On average, there’s more than one spill per day of crude oil, refined oil products or hazardous substances on Alaska’s North Slope at Prudhoe Bay. In 1999 alone, these spills released 45,000 gallons of crude oil, diesel fuel, propane and ethylene glycol, among other toxic substances. Oil is also released into the arctic environment through leaks in the Trans-Alaska pipeline system.

6. In the course of normal operations North Slope oil and gas operations generate enormous amounts of waste. All of it is exempt from hazardous-waste regulations because of a loophole in the law. As a result, millions of gallons of oily liquids and sludge, toxic brine and other wastes are dumped into open pits, frozen into the permafrost or simply discharged into the environment.

7. The most heavily affected area in the refuge, the coastal plain, is also the most sensitive. It is the very place where the Porcupine caribou herd migrates to have their young and where countless wild birds spend the summer months. The difference between drilling the coastal plain and the rest of the refuge is like the difference between putting a needle in your arm or your heart. Biologists project that the birthrate of the Porcupine caribou may fall by 40 percent if drilling is allowed. The effects on the many birds, bears, musk oxen, and other wildlife is largely unknown.

8. Drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge sets a precedent that endangers all of America's wild lands. If we cannot protect the integrity of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, how can we hope to protect any of our wild lands? 


There is also a slide show here that displays images from a Smithsonian exhibition of Mr. Banerjee's images. The exhibit was to be in a main gallery but was moved to an obscure Smithsonian gallery and the works re-captioned under political pressure from proponents of oil drilling in the refuge.



 - ExxonMobil is the only oil company that's still part of Arctic Power, the group lobbying Congress to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. The rest have bowed out due to public pressure.
 - ExxonMobil has made efforts to block meaningful action to cut global warming pollution and is funding junk science to hide the facts about global warming.
 - ExxonMobile has made a conscious decision to forgo investment in clean energy solutions despite record profits at a time of rising gasoline prices.
 - ExxonMobil has failed to pay all of the punitive damages awarded to fishermen and others injured by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. 

- Visit to find out what you can do to help preserve the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and to help pressure ExxonMobile to clean up its act.

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Copyright 2005 Dean M. Chriss
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