ANWR Battle Looms Over Energy Debate

By J.R. Pegg

September 23, 2003 (ENS) - The stage is set on Capitol Hill for yet another showdown over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Republican leaders announced Monday that they will battle to keep language opening ANWR within the comprehensive energy bill, although they acknowledged there is strong opposition to the policy.

"Developing ANWR is the right thing to do," said New Mexico Republican Pete Domenici, cochair of the conference committee tasked with forging a final energy bill from competing House and Senate legislation.

Developing oil in ANWR can be done in an "environmentally sound" manner, Domenici said, and will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, boost the nation's economy and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

The provision included in the draft legislation is identical to what was passed by the House - it would open 2,000 acres of ANWR's 1.5 million acre coastal plain.

Supporters of opening ANWR have twice failed to muster the 60 votes needed to push the measure past strong opposition.

Domenici says he is ready to fight for those votes, but is not willing to risk the entire energy bill for ANWR. bears

Supporters of drilling in ANWR contend the environment can sustain Alaskan wildlife and oil drilling. (Photo courtesy Arctic Power)
"I have long said that if I can not get the 60 votes for cloture, I will not put ANWR in the final report," he said. "Between now and the hour when that decision must be made, I will work relentlessly for those votes. I will work until the final hours of this conference.

The New Mexico Republican faces an uphill battle.

At least 43 U.S. senators have weighed in with opposition to the ANWR provision.

Last week a group of 38 Senate Democrats have sent a letter to Domenici stating their opposition to drilling in ANWR. This came on the heels of a similar letter sent by five Republican senators.

In their letter, the Democrats stated that ""a national energy policy that strengthens our security and economy is too important to be waylaid by a controversial provision twice rejected by the Senate."

There are few issues more contentious that drilling in ANWR - virtually every point in the debate is heavily contested by both sides.

Opponents believe the coastal plain of ANWR is the biological heart of the refuge and that oil drilling would have devastating impacts to its wildlife.

More than 100 species of wildlife and birds rely on the coastal plain of ANWR, including caribou, polar bears, wolves, grizzly bears, musk oxen, and arctic foxes. rig

Opponents say drilling and ANWR do not mix. (Photo courtesy Arctic Power)
But Interior Secretary Gale Norton has described the area as "an area of flat, white nothingness." Norton and others say new drilling technologies that eliminate the need for off road seismic drilling as well as industry improvements that have reduced the footprints of oil platforms, will help assure that the environmental impact is minimal.

Critics say there is no way to really limit the environmental impact of oil development in a pristine environment.

"The alleged 2,000 acre 'footprint' is in reality a spider web of development that would engulf the length and breadth of the coastal plain, " said Robert Dewey, vice president for government relations for Defenders of Wildlife.

The oil within ANWR is not concentrated in one reserve - and the 2,000 acre limitation outlined in the ANWR provision only addresses surface acreage covered by production and support facilities. It does not include pipelines, gravel roads and ice roads.

"No matter how they package it, drilling in the Arctic Refuge will destroy one of this nation's last and greatest wilderness areas," Dewey said.

The oil and gas industry "already has access to 95 percent of Alaska's North Slope," added Athan Manuel, Arctic Wilderness Campaign director for U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "The last five percent of America's Arctic should be kept off limits to drilling and development."

How much oil can be recovered from ANWR is another contentious point in the debate - with opponents and supporters opting for the estimate at the extremes of estimates that best suits their argument. ANWRsummer

For a few months of the year, ANWR's coastal plain blooms into glory. (Photo by John and Karen Hollingsworth courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Government estimates range from 5.7 billion to 16 billion barrels of oil lie within the coastal plain, with the mean value of technically recoverable oil coming in at 10.4 billion barrels.

The official estimate from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which was last revised in 1998, found that the mean value of the total quantity of technically recoverable oil in the area is 7.7 billion barrels.

But the term "technically recoverable" is not the same as "economically recoverable," which many believe is a more accurate figure. This figure takes into account the cost of finding, developing, producing and transporting the oil to market based on a 12 percent after tax return on investment.

For example, using 1996 dollars, USGS estimated that at $24 per barrel, there is a 95 percent chance that at least two billion barrels can be economically recovered and a five percent probability that 9.4 billion barrels are economically recoverable.

The mean of this estimate is at least 5.2 billion barrels of oil is economically recoverable at $24 per barrel.

Although oil prices did rise above $35 per barrel this year, but USGS estimates do not show a significant increase in economically recoverable oil at these levels. The agency's mean amount of oil that is economically recoverable changes little from $24 per barrel and upward.

According to the U.S. Energy Department, the United States consumes some 7.3 billion barrels of oil a year. polarbear

Polar bears and other scavengers have survived oil and gas development on Alaska's North Slope, but conservationists say many of the changes to the ecosystem are irreversible. (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
There is additional debate as to how quickly oil from ANWR could get to market, with industry estimates predicting it would take about 10 years to get a meaningful amount into the nation's supply.

And critics of opening ANWR say the nation could save far more oil through modest conservation efforts

But conflicting representations of how much and how quickly oil can be pulled from ANWR has done little to curtail the desire of many Republican lawmakers and the Bush administration to opening the refuge.

"Developing a very small portion of ANWR is critically important from an economic and national security standpoint," said Louisiana Republican Congressman Billy Tauzin, cochair of the energy conference committee. "It will reduce our growing, dangerous dependence on foreign oil and will help to ensure affordable and abundant energy supplies in the future."

Domenici said he is "counting on the will of the American people and the bipartisan appeal of several provisions in the bill to bring us the ANWR votes."

The American people have endured a slew of energy pangs this year, Domenici said, from high gasoline and natural gas prices to the worst power outage in U.S. history.

"The American people want an energy bill - they want it now," he said. "For now, [ANWR] is on the table for some serious discussion."