The prospects for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration are better than they have been in years.
The Trump administration and congressional Republicans in recent weeks have renewed the fight over opening part of an enormous wildlife refuge in northern Alaska to oil and gas exploration.
The battle over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which pits Republicans in Washington and much of the political and business establishment in Alaska against congressional Democrats and environmental and conservation groups, has been going on for decades. With Republicans holding both houses of Congress and the presidency, the prospects for opening the refuge, at least to studies of its oil and gas potential, are better than they have been in years. And a budget resolution introduced late last month, and supported by Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, may help pave the way.
“There seems to be a decent opportunity to get this done,” said Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, which promotes fossil fuels.
Here’s a look at what is happening and why, and what is at stake.
What is the refuge?
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge consists of about 19 million acres of pristine land in northeastern Alaska. Much of the acreage was first set aside in 1960 under President Dwight D. Eisenhower; the full refuge, which is about the size of South Carolina, was established through a congressional act in 1980. About 40 percent of the land, mostly in the Brooks Range, is designated as wilderness, to remain undeveloped with no human settlement.
The refuge, one of the largest in the United States, is the nesting place for several hundred species of migratory birds; home to wolves, polar bears, caribou and other mammals; and spawning grounds for Dolly Varden trout and other fish.
“I can say definitively that it is a national treasure,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska regional director of the Wilderness Society.
There is private land within the refuge, including the Inupiat village of Kaktovik, A Gwich’in community, Arctic Village, is just outside the refuge. Outdoor activities, including hunting, are allowed, but there are no roads or facilities except in Kaktovik.
Why might drilling for oil and gas be allowed there?
When Congress established the refuge in 1980, it deferred action on the issue of whether oil and gas exploration should be allowed in part of it: 1.5 million acres of coastal plain between the Brooks Range and the Beaufort Sea. This land came to be called the “1002 area,” after the part of the act that refers to it, and it was thought likely to contain a lot of oil because it was not far from Prudhoe Bay and other parts of the North Slope where large oil fields had been discovered beginning in the 1960s.
But the 1002 area is also a critical habitat for much of the refuge’s wildlife. Polar bears make dens there, and it is where most of the huge Porcupine caribou herd — 200,000 animals in all — come in spring and early summer to calve and forage for food.
The 1980 act allowed for studies to determine the potential for oil and gas development in the 1002 area. In 1984 and 1985, a consortium of oil companies undertook seismic studies, in which special trucks “thumped” the ground and the reflected sound waves provided details about rock formations and potential oil and gas reserves in them. A 1998 assessment by the United States Geological Survey that relied in part on those seismic studies estimated that the 1002 area contained 4 billion to 12 billion barrels of recoverable oil. (The North Slope currently produces about 180 million barrels a year.)
Republicans have long wanted to open the area to drilling, or at least to allow new seismic studies using improved technology to get a clearer picture of where the oil is. Environmental groups say that even studying the land in this way damages it — they say there are still signs of the 1980s seismic work on the landscape — and that the area is too important to wildlife and should remain protected.
Many political leaders and business interests in Alaska favor opening the refuge. Producing more oil and gas would add to state revenues, which have fallen in recent years as North Slope oil production has declined and prices have fallen. Native Alaskans in the region tend to be divided on the issue.
Unlike some other federal lands that can be opened to drilling by Interior Department actions, opening the refuge requires congressional action.
How might drilling be allowed there?
This year, Republicans opened the fight on two fronts. In a memo in August, Interior Department officials proposed changing a rule that had limited exploratory studies in the refuge to the mid-1980s. Under the proposed change, such studies could now be undertaken anytime.
Then, in the past few weeks, Republicans in the Senate introduced a budget resolution that would in effect tie opening the refuge to the budget. The resolution would require the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee — headed by Ms. Murkowski, long a drilling proponent — to come up with a plan to generate $1 billion in new revenues over 10 years. A budget resolution introduced in the House in July would require a House committee to come up with a similar plan.
A compromise House-Senate plan, which presumably would involve selling oil and gas leases in the refuge as the way to generate the revenue, would eventually be voted on as part of the budget process. Only simple majorities would be needed for passage. Republicans in the Senate, who hold 52 seats, would not need the 60 votes required to overcome a filibuster.
This approach has been tried before, once during the Clinton administration — when it was vetoed by the president — and in 2005, when opposition from moderate Republicans scuttled the idea.
Senate Democrats immediately announced opposition to the budget move this time, but to block it they would need at least a few Republicans to join them.
The Interior Department’s proposed change to allow new seismic studies would have to go through a public comment period and would likely be challenged in court by environmental groups.
What would the impact be?
There is no certainty that oil companies would rush to study or further explore the potential for oil and gas production in the refuge, especially with oil prices, currently about $50 a barrel, far lower than they were earlier this decade. Shell pulled out of plans to drill for oil in Arctic waters off Alaska two years ago, citing high costs and other factors.
Mr. Pyle said there were many issues, including oil prices and production costs, that companies would have to consider before deciding to proceed in the refuge. But, he said, “the economics work better on land than offshore.”
If the refuge were opened, the first step would be to conduct new seismic studies, likely using technology that produces three-dimensional images of underground formations. Then, exploratory wells would be drilled; if they proved successful, production wells would follow. How long the process would take would depend on many factors, but one estimate is that oil could be flowing within five years.
Proponents of drilling in the refuge sometimes cite a proposal offered by Republicans more than a decade ago to limit the footprint of oil and gas wells and any related activities to 2,000 acres, just a tiny fraction of the refuge’s 19 million acres. They note that technologies like directional drilling, which allows multiple wells to be drilled outward from one platform, would reduce the overall impact.
But environmental groups say that the 2,000-acre footprint is misleading. Even if the wellheads cover relatively little area, roads, pipelines, facilities for workers and other structures could have a much bigger environmental impact. Among other things, they say, the infrastructure and activity could disturb caribou and lead them to abandon their usual calving sites for less suitable locations outside the 1002 area.
“There is a large and growing segment of the public that really understands there are some places we protect,” said Sarah Greenberger, vice president for conservation at the National Audubon Society. “And there’s a continued sense that this is one of those places.”
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