Alaskan Oil Exploration Would Impact Minimal Acreage

By Jason Pierce | July 7, 2008 | 8:19 PM EDT

( - Vice President Al Gore has been attacking rival George W Bush's proposal for tapping the Alaskan oil resources to decrease America's dependence on foreign oil, calling the Bush plan bad for the environment by impacting one of the nation's largest wildlife preserves.

But a look at the reserves in question shows that the Bush proposal would impact a tiny fraction of the land in question - about one-ten thousandth of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - according to both Senate officials and environmental sources.

The ANWR includes some 19 million acres of land, and Bush has proposed exploration of about 1.5 million acres of the preserve. But Chuck Kleeschulte, press secretary for Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-AK), said the 1.5 million acre figure is deceptive because it overstates the amount of land that would be materially affected by oil exploration.

"It would affect about 2,000 acres of the 19 million acres of the coastal plain," said Kleeschulte. According to him, the oil lies beneath a mass of about one-and-a-half million acres of land, but the derricks, roads, housing facilities and other areas required to find and tap the oil would require only a few thousand acres.

"The ANWR is about 19 million acres in size and 8 million of which is wilderness and will remain wilderness," said Kleeschulte. "Another 9.5 million of it will not have oil development happen anywhere near it. The issue is whether the 1.5 million acres of coastal plain that was left out of any classification in 1980 could be possibly opened for oil exploration, whether you could look for oil on that area."

Land in the ANWR was carved into specific sectors 20 years ago, with an area of 1.5 million acres of coastal plains excluded from the wilderness refuge. That parcel was given a separate classification subject to a congressional order that an studies be conducted to decide whether oil and gas exploration could be done safely.

According to Kleeschulte, Congress voted in 1995 to open the coastal plain for study, but the study was blocked by a veto from President Bill Clinton.

Opponents of oil exploration in the ANWR don't disagree on the acreage involved with such a project as much as they do on the impact of doing so. Jim Waltman, director of wildlife programs for the Wilderness Society, emphasized the importance of the 2,000 acre plot, saying it is very valuable to the wildlife there because it is home to caribou, polar bears, and many species of birds.

"[ANWR] happens to be the most important area of the whole refuge," Waltman said. "It would be like taking the Mona Lisa and cutting out the smile. It may be a small area of the painting but it is one of the most critical parts of the painting so you wouldn't mess with it."

Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman echoed similar sentiments in attacking Bush's proposal. "The heart of his energy policy is exactly what the energy industry wants, which is to drill in one of the most beautiful parts of America, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for the possibility that we might get some oil seven to twelve years from now," Lieberman said.

But what Lieberman called the 'possibility' of finding oil in the ANWR appears greater than he inferred, according to geological research. Kleeschulte said the estimated oil production from that site could equal the amount produced from the existing Prudhoe Bay oil fields, where oil has been pumped for almost a quarter of a century.

"If a 16 billion barrel oilfield is discovered on the north slope of Alaska, which is one of the US geological estimates, it would produce more than the neighboring Prudhoe Bay oil field which has been pumping for 23 years," Kleeschulte said. "Production would equal between 1 and 2 million barrels a day and it would change it from a wilderness habitat, but we don't believe it would hurt any wildlife."

Kleeschulte also said legislation opening the area for exploration would require research to be done during the winter months, after most species of animals have left the area and migrated south into Canada for the winter.

"Legislation in the Senate would bar any activity on the North Slope in June and July when the caribou might be there. It would require underground pipelines, winter ice roads, winter exploration," Kleeschulte said.

The Wilderness Society's Waltman emphasized the importance of the piece of land in ecological terms, saying "the amount of oil is secondary because this is a spectacular area. No amount of oil would make it worth going in."

Although the potential risk to wildlife in any new exploration effort remains in question, earlier oil production projects haven't seemed to harm the region's population of caribou, a species of particular concern.

Kleeschulte said caribou live around a neighboring drilling site and have been reproducing normally in oil fields where exploration is currently underway. "At Prudhoe Bay, the caribou herd that lives there in the oil field, their population has tripled since oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay in 1974 until now," Kleeschulte said. "If caribou were particularly affected by modest amounts of human activities, their herd would not have tripled in size."