North Slope Report Fuels Alaska Drilling Debate

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, March 5, 2003 (ENS) - Three decades of oil drilling on Alaska's North Slope has brought economic benefits to the region, but has caused lasting environmental damage and a mixture of positive and negative social change, says an independent panel of experts.

The National Research Council report released Tuesday is the first official assessment of the cumulative environmental, economic and social effects of some 30 years of oil drilling on Alaska's North Slope, which covers 89,000 square miles.

The report, "Cumulative Environmental Effects of Oil and Gas Activities on Alaska's North Slope," does not offer any policy recommendations on the issue of oil drilling within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), which is east of the established North Slope oil fields and remains the only part of the nation's Arctic coast not open to drilling.

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A river runs through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (All photos courtesy Arctic Power)
The Bush administration and some Republicans in Congress are moving to open ANWR to drilling, despite fierce opposition from environmentalists, Democrats and a handful of Republicans.

"That is a policy decision, not a science decision," University of Washington zoology professor Gordon Orians told reporters. Orians served as chair of the 18 member committee that produced the report.

Even so, the report was immediately hailed by opponents of drilling in ANWR, while at the same time it was labeled as biased and flawed by some supporters.

The report is "just another attempt by the people who have been opposed to development in Alaska," said Senator Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican.

"To hear them talk, you would think it would be in the best interest of the country to turn the clock back and put Eskimos back in igloos and deny them energy, deny them any assistance of the federal government, and deny them any income from the production of their lands."

Stevens alleged that at least three committee members are on record opposing increased drilling and said this undermines the impartiality of the report.

Orians denied charges of any bias within the final report, noting that the panel included individuals with ties to the oil and gas industry, along with members linked to environmental and conservation groups.

"This is a unanimous report," Orians said. "Everyone agreed to this, even the members whose research has been funded by the oil industry for years. The claim that particular biases have slanted the committee's view cannot be sustained."

The study was mandated by Congress and carried out by the research arm of the National Academies, which is a private, nonprofit institution charged with providing science and technology advice under a congressional charter. Members of its committees are not compensated for their work.

The report finds that efforts by oil industry and regulatory agencies have reduced many environmental effects, but have not eliminated them. Some of the environmental damage will last for centuries or longer because of the costs of cleanup and the fragile nature of the Arctic environment.

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Caribou find oil installations on their traditional migration route.
Oil was first discovered on the North Slope in 1968. Oil production on the slope and along its coast accounts for some 15 percent of the nation's oil production.

There are concerns about the haphazard development of oil and gas on the slope, driven by a consistent "lack of planning" by different agencies and regulatory bodies with oversight of the area, Orians said.

"There has been no vision or planning on where things ought to go," he said.

But scientific advances are helping to reduce some environmental impacts. Smaller oil drilling platforms cause less harm to the tundra, as does the trend that more roads and drilling sites are now being constructed with ice instead of gravel.

Fewer exploration wells are needed to locate and target oil deposits. The use of remote sensing has reduced off road travel, an activity the panel cited as having notable environmental consequences. Off road trails for seismic exploration have harmed vegetation, caused erosion and degraded the aesthetic beauty of the tundra.

It is "difficult to fully determine the impacts of off road activity," Orians said, because the oil industry refused to release information on where and when it had conducted seismic explorations.

For some areas of concern, in particular oil spills, the committee found no evidence that environmental effects have accumulated.

"Oil spills have not accumulated over time because spills have been small and relatively contained," Orians said.

"But if there were to be a major spill offshore in the ocean, current technology cannot remove but a fraction of the oil spilled."

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Bear climbs a pipeline on Alaska's North Slope.
The report offers a mixed review of the impact of the oil and gas industry on wildlife. There have not been large declines in the caribou herds within the slope, but their geographical distribution and reproductive success has been altered. The animals avoid some traditional areas used for calving and for protection from insects because of oil development, and the report finds the spread of industrial activity could increase this trend.

Some animals and birds, including bears, foxes, ravens and gulls, have benefited from development on the North Slope. These scavenging species have thrived with the addition of food sources from human refuse. But these species prey on eggs and nesting birds, some of which are threatened and endangered. The report finds some bird species are struggling to maintain stable populations because of this increased threat.

The panel suggests that if oil activities expand, these predator populations must be controlled if the impact to some bird species is to be contained.

Bowhead whales have altered their migration patterns to avoid noise from offshore seismic activity, the report says. The extent of this detour and the impact to the species is not fully understood, panelists said, but it is impacting the indigenous societies of the slope.

The Inupiat Eskimos, for example, have a long tradition of hunting bowhead whales, but are now finding they have to travel much further out to sea to catch the whales. And the Gwich'in Indians, who rely on caribou, are concerned about changes to caribou herds and their migration patterns due to oil drilling.

"There is no question in the minds of the native community that have been positive and negative impacts from oil development," said committee member Patricia Cochran, executive director of the Alaska Native Science Commission.

Money from oil development has improved schools, health care and housing. But these improvements appear to have a cost, the report finds, including increased alcoholism and diabetes.

The report suggests the negative social impacts could be mitigated by increased involvement of these communities within the planning process for future oil and gas development and for when oil and gas production declines on the slope.

What will happen when production of oil and gas on the North Slope has ceased is something that has not been addressed, the report finds. It will take billions of dollars to clean up and remove the infrastructure put in place to drill oil and gas, costs that neither the government nor the industry has said it is willing to absorb.

The panelists said further research into the environmental effects of drilling should rely more on locals, explore air pollution and contamination of water and food sources, as well as the possible implications of climate change.

The report is intended to help policymakers with their decisions, committee members said, and reflects that there are environmental, economic and social tradeoffs for the future of oil development on the North Slope.

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Oil drilling on Alaska's North Slope will last for years.
"When industrial development goes into an area there will be some associated changes in the environment and society has to face that, whether it is in Alaska or in the lower 48 states," said panelist Chuck Kennicutt, director of the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group at Texas A&M University's College of Geosciences.

"We are simply saying that there is change that will occur. It is always a question of balance between the benefits and the costs and these are perceived differently by different people," Kennicutt said.

Bush administration officials said they welcomed the report and highlighted its findings that technology is lessening the environmental impact of drilling.

The report shows that, "We can protect wildlife and produce energy on the North Slope," said Department of Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

Protections that the administration supports, Norton said, include mandated ice roads and runways, limits for exploration areas to no more than 2,000 acres, analysis of each proposed exploration site to avoid sensitive waters and a mandate the exploration only occur in the winter.

Environmentalists and some Democrats believe the report demonstrates that governmental oversight of drilling and its environmental effects has been lacking.

"The National Academies' report reveals what we have suspected all along, that oil and gas exploration and development have significant impact on wildlife and their habitat and is leaving a legacy of pollution on one of America's most pristine areas," said Congressman Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts.

"Oil companies haven't set aside the money required to clean up their current infrastructure, let alone any potential expansion," Markey said. "It seems likely that the restoration of the North Slope, if it is restored at all, will fall on the taxpayer's shoulders."

The report can be found at http://www.nas.edu.