Allowing oil drilling in Alaska sets a dangerous precedent

By Hannah Davis

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(Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times/TNS)

The United States Senate recently passed a catastrophic tax bill. Some highlights include adding $1 trillion to the national debt, astronomical loss of health insurance and making higher education even more unattainable.

As if that’s not already bad enough, this bill also contains a proposal to allow oil drilling in 1.5 million acres of some of the United States’ most pristine land in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.       

Drilling would impact almost every single aspect of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, from its unique role as a benchmark for scientific study to its ecological and evolutionary processes. In fact, the refuge would be rife with cumulative impacts such as disturbances in the wildlife, decreased biodiversity (and thus a less resilient ecological system) and an increased industrial footprint.

In this case, the area that is under review for drilling is more than 30 miles from the end of the closest pipeline, as well as over 50 miles away from the nearest oil support facilities. This means that if the drilling were to come to fruition, the impact would stretch much farther than just the actual drilling site. Additionally, oil’s natural occurrence is rarely in the form of one convenient field; it is far more likely to be spread out in small pockets throughout the geologic formation. This means the construction of multiple production sites and associated infrastructure for travel between all of them.

 This extensive drilling is bound to have numerous ecological consequences. Wildlife populations would be blocked or deflected, and hunting opportunities for every organism would be lost. Natural drainage patterns would change, leading to a loss of vital vegetation. Inevitable oil and fuel spills will contaminate the water and soil, and the local pollutant haze and acid rain from nitrogen oxides, methane and particulate matter would drastically change the environment.

 In a letter written this November to Senators Murkowski and Cantwell, almost 40 scientists urged the protection of the coastal plain. They detailed the significant impact that drilling would have on the surrounding ecological systems, including the deterioration of habitat for already threatened and vulnerable polar bears. Additionally, reproductive success of caribou would be negatively affected by the industrial sprawl.

As if the inherent worth of a pristine ecosystem wasn’t reason enough, drilling in the Arctic Refuge would not alleviate pressures from the energy sector, financial deficit or job industry. The amount of oil thought to be available for drilling under the coastal plain will amount to less than one percent of the total national oil production. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries could just as easily reduce its total production by the same amount that the drilling in the Arctic Refuge would contribute, thereby eliminating any effect there might be on oil pricing. The USGS Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Petroleum Assessment estimates the mean value of technically recoverable oil to be approximately 7.7 billion barrels, which is just over the amount used by the United States in one year. Not to mention consumption of those 7.7 billion barrels of oil will add up to approximately 3,311,000,000 metric tons of extra carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. This one year’s worth of production is simply not worth the environmental impacts that will last so much longer.

Finally, drilling in the Arctic Wildlife National Refuge sets a dangerous precedent for the future. If we drill in what is quite clearly designated as a wildlife refuge now, what is to stop us from drilling in other protected areas in the future? Beloved national parks could suddenly be at risk for drilling.

There are numerous renewable energy alternatives to drilling for oil. Renewable energy is more reliable than fossil fuels, and far less invasive. Theoretically speaking, resources like solar energy, geothermal, water, biomass and wind are limitless; as long as the earth continues to exist the way it has for the entirety of human history, we will have access to power. Additionally, since we don’t have to combust renewable energy to make it usable, carbon emissions will be significantly reduced. 

If we try, we can still prevent this. But we need to act swiftly and strongly. Call your representatives, protest, march — this is a call to action! Help to preserve what little wilderness we have left.

Hannah Davis is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at [email protected]