WASHINGTON – Alaskan lawmakers continue to push for energy development in the Arctic region, citing economic and national security incentives and highlighting regulatory safeguards for the environment. But critics say drilling can be done in less environmentally perilous areas while still boosting the local and national economies.
On July 19, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., that the U.S. has “extraordinary potential” for economic development in the Arctic.
“How we can unleash that economic opportunity is something that we have been working toward for a long time,” Murkowski said. She urged the Trump administration to put in regulatory frameworks to ensure safety protocols for both onshore and offshore exploration and drilling.
The Trump administration has overturned President Barack Obama’s five-year plan banning exploration in Arctic and allowed the Italian oil company Eni to start drilling offshore in December. The fiscal 2018 budget proposal also includes plans to sell oil and gas drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources says allowing development in the ecologically sensitive area would help ensure the successful continued operations of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, which is “facing more and more challenges from declining throughput.”
“The Trans-Alaska pipeline [is] in need of additional oil to flow through the TAPS line to keep it in operation,” Tara Sweeney, executive vice president of the private, for-profit Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, told the audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The US. Geological Survey estimated in 2008 that there are 90 billion barrels of oil and 1.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Arctic, 84 percent of which is offshore. Receding sea ice has made the region more accessible for oil and gas exploration.
Nils Andreassen, executive director of the Institute of the North, a non-profit research center, points out that investment in oil and gas would help provide Alaska with essential services like health care and education, build the state’s capacity for “good governance” and a developed workforce, and contribute to the permanent sovereign wealth fund.
“For so many communities in Alaska where there isn’t a lot of opportunity…any economic activity [is] very important for the stability of the community,” Andreassen said. “There’s no other resource that would have the same value to the state as oil and gas development.”
But a report released in June by the Wilderness Society, a conservation organization, said drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other ecologically sensitive regions, such as portions of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, are unnecessary.
“Recent oil discoveries in less controversial, non-federally protected regions of the Arctic will continue the upward trend in pipeline flow for many years to come,” the report stated, adding that pipelines are designed and operated to carry less than peak flow.
“It’s completely fear-mongering to say the pipeline is under any sort of threat of shutting down,” Lois Epstein, director of the Wilderness Society, said in an interview. “That’s not to say it doesn’t cost more by operators to make sure they don’t have problems with the amount of oil flow that they have now.”
Other environmentalists and some lawmakers are also pushing back against development.
“Reopening offshore drilling in the Arctic would be the height of irresponsibility,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., in a press release earlier this month. “There is no reason to put lives and entire ecosystems at risk just to extract oil that will intensify climate disruption.”
Kristen Monsell, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the Arctic is home to polar bears, walruses, ringed seals, and other animals that don’t exist anywhere else on earth. She also cited a 2014 study from the Department of Ocean Energy Management, which found a 75 percent chance of a large oil spill under a single lease sale in the Chukchi Sea.
“There’s absolutely no proven ways to clean up oil from ice,” Monsell said.
Niel Lawrence, Alaska director and senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, cautioned against letting the fate of Alaska’s North Slope fall into the hands of “those who are only really interested in short-term development.”
He explained that offshore drilling, in particular, is “doomed to fail” because the entire process of exploration and production takes two to three decades. “By then, the world cannot still be reliant on fossil fuels. There can’t be a market for them unless we’ve already badly lost the battle against climate change.”
Economists, lawmakers and environmentalists agree there are immense challenges to oil exploration and production in the Arctic. In a region covered in ice most of the year, “the creation and the movements of that ice can destroy pipelines and infrastructure,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “If you have a massive oil spill and it comes up underneath the ice, nobody knows how to go in and capture that oil.”
Climate change is another variable that companies have yet to solve for.
“The whole weather pattern is changing up there,” Suckling pointed out. “We could be in a situation where there’s less ice, but all of a sudden we have arctic storms.”
Although burning fossil fuels has a greater impact on overall climate change than localized activity, ships emit soot that can land on ice and contribute to melting because it absorbs the heat from the sun, explained John Farrell, executive director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.
Walter Cruickshank, deputy director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, told the audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that in the near future, any oil and gas developments are going to take place in relatively shallow waters and closer to existing infrastructure. “Longer term, it’s hard to say what the investment will be, but there won’t be any if there aren’t leases made available for folks,” he said.