Did you know the National Audubon Society has earned more than $25 million in royalties by allowing oil and natural gas production in Louisiana’s Rainey Wildlife Refuge and Michigan’s Baker Sanctuary?
In fact, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey commissioned by Congressman Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, in 2001 reported 77 of 567 wildlife refuges in 22 states had oil and gas activities on their land in 2000, according to Arctic Power, the Alaskan group pushing for ANWR oil exploration.
Ironically, the Rainey refuge is the winter habitat for snow geese migrating from Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), while the Baker Sanctuary, a 900-acre wetland, provides hundreds of Sandhill cranes with a critical nesting area.
If drilling and exploration are safely done in existing wildlife refuges, why would it be an “environmental apocalypse” if a tiny portion of ANWR were opened to exploration? It would not.
Unfortunately, that fact was lost in the political head-butting between legendary Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Washington’s Sen. Maria Cantwell, first-term Democrat. While the battle was touted as a biblical David slaying Goliath, the information that really mattered never made it into the headlines and the sound bites.
In its rush to adjourn by Christmas, Congress brawled over process rather than substance. The process was a threatened filibuster of vital defense appropriation legislation because Stevens hung an ANWR amendment on the bill. His amendment would have allowed exploration on fewer than 2,000 acres of ANWR’s 19.6 million acres. The substance, which was never debated, was how we could supply much-needed energy for our nation in an environmentally compatible way.
Finally, many rightly argue that ANWR drilling should have been addressed in the comprehensive energy bill passed last spring. But the facts about the ANWR proposal were lost in a sea of political bravado, election-year maneuvering and the threat to cut off funding to our military.
All that is water over the dam, but there are three basic questions Congress should answer when, hopefully, it addresses the issue this year:
1. Oil and natural gas exploration already occurs safely in wildlife refuges. Which environmental safeguards from existing refuge production can be applied to ANWR?
2. ANWR drilling would occur during the winter and the icy roads would evaporate in the spring and summer months when caribou and other animals are in the coastal areas. How can improved road and drilling pad techniques from existing North Slope operations be applied?
3. Alaska North Slope technology now allows directional drilling up to eight miles from production pads. For example, Alpine, the latest production facility on the slope, is a 40,000-acre roadless oil field tapped by a single isolated 97-acre production pad accessible only by helicopter in the summer. How can energy experts apply the even newer technology to ANWR?
ANWR is America’s single greatest prospect for future domestic oil production. Experts estimate it contains 10 billion to 17 billion barrels of recoverable oil – enough to replace 58 years of Iraqi oil. But despite that, opponents continue to put forward arguments that have proven to be false.
Thirty years ago, they predicted that the Alaska Oil Pipeline would devastate caribou herds. They were wrong. Over the last three decades, the caribou population around Prudhoe Bay has skyrocketed from 3,000 to more than 27,000 animals. Despite that fact, opponents once again predict environmental disaster if we drill in ANWR. They are wrong again. There is no reason that the same compatibility with wildlife demonstrated at Prudhoe Bay would not extend to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Perhaps one way to ensure that compatibility is for Congress to set aside a portion of the royalties to ensure that wildlife protection is adequately funded. It works elsewhere, why not ANWR?
Don C. Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.