Why Drilling in Alaska’s ANWR Is a Bad Idea

Sheryl CanterU.S. oil companies already have permission to drill in millions of unexplored acres, but there is a push now to drill in one area where they don’t have permission: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). A terrible idea, drilling in ANWR would:

  • Not produce much oil.
  • Not lower gas prices.
  • Harm the environment.

If you (or someone you know) does not believe this, read on!

Drilling Cannot Produce Enough Oil

A recent U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) assessment says there is "considerable uncertainty regarding both the size and quality of the oil resources that exist in ANWR." Even if 7.7 billion barrels a day could be recovered (as estimated in one government study), "the current upper limit to ANWR oil production is the transportation capacity of TAPS" (Trans Alaska Pipeline System), or 2.136 million barrels per day. To put this in context, the U.S. burns 21 million barrels per day.

Plus, DOE says that the maximum potential capacity – accessing all the oil that’s available to be pumped – would not be realized until 2026.

ANWR oil would be too little too late. Our planning for 2026 should not be centered around oil, but rather on new energy technologies. As Thomas Friedman said in a recent interview, we should be shouting "Invent, invent, invent!" not "Drill, drill, drill!"

I’m actually not against drilling. What I’m against is making that the center of our focus because we are on the eve of a new revolution, the energy technology revolution. It would be, Tom, as if on the eve of the IT revolution, the revolution of PCs and the internet, someone was up there standing and demanding, "IBM Selectric typewriters, IBM Selectric typewriters." That’s what "drill, drill, drill" is the equivalent of today.

It Would Not Lower Oil Prices

EDF economist Gernot Wagner explained to me why drilling won’t lead to lower oil and gas prices. What’s mainly driving high oil prices today, he said, is increased demand. And the increase, in large part, is due to the newly mobile millions around the world who’ve been lifted out of poverty in the last few decades.

DOE predicts that world oil demand between 2010 and 2015 will increase by over 7 percent, and 30 percent by 2030. The U.S. only has 3 percent of the world’s oil reserves, and less than one-fifth of that is in federal offshore waters. So even if we were able to tap into the full 3 percent, it would scarcely make a dent in the demand-supply balance.

Then there is this inconvenient fact: OPEC would have the final say on whether increased U.S. production lowered world prices. OPEC easily could scale back total production by the same amount to wipe out any price effects. They did it just this week in response to falling oil prices.

Drilling will not reduce fuel prices, and will not make us more energy independent. The only way to achieve these goals is to reduce our dependence on oil – foreign or domestic – through fuel economy, and a cap on carbon emissions. A carbon cap will spur innovation and shift us into a green energy economy.

It Would Harm the Environment

If drilling for oil in ANWR could possibly do us some good, then perhaps one could make the argument that we should do it – even if it did bring harm to wildlife and ecosystems. But to harm ecosystems for no benefit at all is just plain stupid – and it would cause harm.

The northern coastal plain of ANWR – the proposed area for drilling – has been characterized by the "drill, drill, drill" crowd as a "wasteland". But, says EDF geographer Peter Black, it’s in fact a vital part of the ANWR ecosystem. Just because it doesn’t look like an appealing tourist spot doesn’t mean it isn’t worth protecting.

Nor does it make sense to argue that the area opened for drilling would be very small. First of all, these areas tend to expand. The nearby Prudhoe Bay oil fields were originally supposed to comprise 2100 acres, but today they spread over 640,000 acres. Plus, as EDF wildlife expert Michael Bean notes, "The effects of development extend well beyond the physical limits of that footprint."

And there’s no question that it would do harm. Oil spills in nearby Prudhoe Bay are common and the consequences are devastating (see this Wilderness Society report [PDF] for pictures and statistics).

There’s another issue to consider: Drilling in a wildlife refuge is a slippery slope. What’s next? Drilling in wilderness areas? National Parks? What’s the value of a protective designation if the land isn’t protected?

There Are Other Places to Drill

ANWR isn’t our only option for domestic drilling. There are millions of acres already open to drilling where oil companies have not yet explored. As my Mom used to say, finish what’s on your plate before you ask for seconds.

This post is by Sheryl Canter, an online writer and editorial manager at Environmental Defense Fund.

This entry was posted in Energy, Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Chuck Moore
    Posted April 9, 2010 at 12:01 am | Permalink

    I have not proposed any solution until now. My previous posts have to been to point out the fallacy of Ms Canter’s arguments and the reality Before I do, I want to point out further the fallacy of Ms Canter’s last point that companies have millions of acres available so work those first and stop sitting on them.

    In NPRA, 11.3 million acres of the 22.6 acre area is available for lease. Of that 11.3 meg total, 170% has been offered for lease. IOW, 70% has been offered for sale more than once. Of the 11.3 million acres, 5.4 million was leased over 5 sales (1999 thru 2008). As of today, 3 meg is under lease, meaning about 2.4 meg (44%) has gone back to the government.

    Reasons for the present energy situation

    1. For decades, energy has been delivered cheaply to the end user and the public is not willing to pay more. The cheap price has been due to supply, delivery efficiency and using uncomplicated energy sources. Vehicles was one product (oil) and electricity mainly from nuclear, natural gas and coal. Though oil prices have risen and there is less of it, coal and natural gas are still inexpensive and plentiful. US oil production is more expensive because all of the big oil finds in the US are history (with Prudhoe Bay being the last in 1968). In 2008, there were 79,000 onshore wells on Federal land producing about 500,000 barrels a day. I do not have figures for non-federal. Offshore drilling is where companies are spending exploration and developement money.

    2. Delays in new oil and gas development caused by government and opposition interference, even after leases have been paid for. I did watch an energy conference with Senator Reid, Gore and others in which Reid talked about over riding all local jurisdiction for a new electricity grid.

    3. Inefficient use of energy – lighting, vehicles, buildings

    1. Reduce energy consumption with more efficient vehicles, lighting and building insulation. Yet how many millions of mecury filled CFL have gone into public landfills?
    2. Reduce government invovlement. Federal government, which is central control, is wasteful and inefficient by it’s very nature. Does anyone really believe the Federal government can be efficient and not waste money? 15 years and $15 billion dollars to build a nuclear waste storage in Nevada has now been shut down. The government is pushing the Chevy Volt but I ask that you read the specs. How will national car mpg go from the present of 27mpg to 35.5 by the 2016 models in about 5 1/2 years from now?
    3. More energy development traditional (gas, oil, nuclear) and newer (wind, solar etc.) When looking at wind though, pay attention to what the annual wind efficiency of the turbine location and not just the wattage of the wind turbine. Texas produces more wind generated that any other state but the wind efficiency rating if 35%. Read up on the years of delay for the Cape Wind project (off Cape Cod)

  2. Meme
    Posted May 13, 2010 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Bet all those chanting “Drill, drill, drill” are looking at the Gulf right now and saying, “DOH!”. If you aren’t, well, there’s no help for some folks…
    They had no plan in place for dealing with this eventuality and their best plan to fix it is a “tophat”, which will work better than the “dome” that didn’t work.

    And you think ANWR would be safe.