CREDIT: Map by Andrew Breiner/AP Photo
To drill or not to drill in a nationally protected arctic wildlife habitat and polar bear breeding ground? That is the question heading to court.
On Friday, the state of Alaska launched a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of the Interior and some of its directors, claiming they wrongfully rejected the state’s application to look for oil and gas on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. According the the lawsuit, the agencies didn’t even consider the plan — an act that “deprived” Alaska of “its right to provide adequate opportunity for the satisfaction of the economic and social needs of the State.”
The application rejected by the U.S. government was not for actual drilling. Rather, it was a seven-year seismic program that would have provided a more specific estimate of the oil and gas resources within the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain — commonly referred to as the 1002 Area. That estimate, the lawsuit says, would help “to inform future decisions by Congress” on whether to drill there.
The U.S. government contends that Alaska’s authority to look for oil in the nationally protected area has expired. Alaska contends it has not.
The Arctic Refuge’s oil has been an ongoing political controversy since 1977, when a British Petroleum geologist named Roger Herrera testified to Congress that he believed there was enormous potential for production. In 2000, the U.S. Energy Information Administration called the area “the largest unexplored, potentially productive geologic onshore basin in the United States.”
Indeed, the area’s oil potential could be enormous. The United States Geological Service estimates that anywhere from 5.7 to 16 billion barrels of oil is technically recoverable from the 1002 area. Taken at its mean, that means the 1002 area could produce about one million barrels of oil per day — about 20 percent of America’s daily domestic production, according to the Institute for Energy Research.
However, there are still uncertainties regarding the importance of the area’s oil. Despite its estimates for production, the EIA has also said that the 1002 area’s oil would probably not have a large impact on world oil prices. “Additional oil production resulting from the opening of the Arctic Refuge would be only a small portion of total world oil production, and would likely be offset in part by somewhat lower production outside the United States,” the agency said.
There are also myriad environmental issues. Located within the Arctic circle, the 1002 area has no sunlight for 56 days of the year, and temperatures are often as low as below 30 degrees Fahrenheit. This makes it extremely difficult to figure out how to clean up an oil spill if one were to occur, according to the Sierra Club, whose recent report on the issue noted that there are no proven technologies to clean up spills in Arctic waters.
“Trying to clean oil out of frigid water, covered in sea ice, in the perpetual darkness of winter would be impossible,” the report reads. “The closest help, a Coast Guard station, is 1,000 miles away.”
In addition, The Arctic Refuge itself is a beacon of wildlife. It is one of only two areas within the National Wildlife Refuge System that are home to all three species of North American bear — black, grizzly, and polar. The 1002 area’s polar bear population is especially important considering its high possibility of global extinction due to climate change — a fact that the Sierra Club noted in its report.
“Burning the fossil fuels found in the Arctic will only accelerate global warming and hasten the disappearance of animals like the polar bear,” the report reads.
A larger-than-expected number of pregnant females come to the 1002 area every year to dig maternity dens, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The area is the only national conservation area where polar bears regularly den, and is the most consistently-used polar bear land denning area in Alaska. In the 2008 Presidential election, both President Obama and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) expressed opposition to drilling in the pristine area.
Alaska’s Republican Governor Sean Parnell is touting the lawsuit, calling it “disappointing and disturbing” that the Obama Administration does not want to look for oil in the polar bear breeding ground. The stance is not unexpected for Parnell, who has expressed a desire to keep the Environmental Protection Agency out of the state, and immediately disbanded his state’s Climate Change Cabinet upon taking office in 2009.
Parnell — a former ConocoPhillips executive — is seeking reelection in 2014.