Candidates Call for Arctic Drilling

During the 2008 presidential elections, oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), located on the northern coast of Alaska, was frowned upon by candidates in both parties. Senator John McCain called the ANWR “one of the most pristine and beautiful parts of the world” during his campaign. McCain also voted against President George W. Bush’s 2002 “Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Amendment,” which sought to reverse the area’s ban on drilling.

“As far as ANWR is concerned, I don’t want to drill in the Grand Canyon, and I don’t want to drill in the Everglades,” McCain said.

President Barack Obama was also vocal about his opposition to drilling in the ANWR in his 2008 campaign, stating: “I strongly reject drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge because it would irreversibly damage a protected national wildlife refuge without creating sufficient oil supplies to meaningfully affect the global market price or have a discernible impact on U.S energy security.”

Now the tide has turned. All four of the current 2012 Republican presidential candidates support drilling in the ANWR, and Shell Oil is drawing closer to constructing platforms and paving roads in the once off-limits region. “In the Arctic frontier, cautious exploration…can help us expand our understanding of the area and its resources, and support our goal of continuing to increase safe and responsible domestic oil and gas production,” the U.S Department of the Interior (DOI) Secretary Ken Salazar said in a February 17, 2012 press release to announce the “next steps toward energy exploration” in the Arctic. One of the next steps mentioned was the announcement of the DOI’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) approval of Shell’s Oil Spill Response Plan, which, according to the nonprofit Oceana, will rely on a capping stack containment device that was only tested in icy conditions once and failed.

“The Obama administration has joined Shell in oil spill response dream land,” said Susan Murray, the senior director of Oceana’s Pacific division. “In the Arctic, responders could face icy conditions, dense fog that lasts weeks and hurricane-force winds in a place nearly 1,000 miles from the nearest Coast Guard facilities. There is no proven method of cleaning up an oil spill in Arctic conditions; there are not sufficient personnel or equipment in the region capable of carrying out an effective response plan offshore; and there are gaps in basic scientific information about the ocean ecosystem needed to prioritize response, rescue, and cleanup efforts and equipment.”

The DOI press release indicated that to ensure a thorough cleanup in the event of a spill, Shell will be allowed to drill only until late September, before ice forms in the ANWR. But the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) argues that even a summer spill would destroy the refuge’s vital and fragile habitat, in turn devastating polar bears, caribou, migratory birds and other wildlife.

“The Obama Administration has just given Shell a tentative go-ahead to begin drilling this summer off the coastline of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — the polar bear’s most important denning ground in Alaska,” said Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., an NRDC senior attorney. “An oil spill is all but assured if the company moves forward with full-scale oil production. Even worse, the oil industry has no proven method for cleaning up oil in the Arctic’s ice-filled waters. So the death toll of oil-soaked and poisoned polar bears, whales and seals would be unimaginable.”

In addition to the green lights from the DOI and BSEE, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently granted a much-needed air-pollutant emissions permit to Shell’s Discoverer ship, which is currently sailing 6,000 miles from Auckland, New Zealand, to the ANRW. Environmental groups, noting that high greenhouse gas emissions accelerate ice loss, are asking the EPA to reconsider its decision.

“We think the EPA took shortcuts,” said Colin O’Brien, an attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice. “We believe the air permit failed to ensure that all air pollution controls are in place and that all standards are met for this major new source of pollution in the Arctic.”

According to the 2008 Department of Energy (DOE) report “Analysis of Crude Oil Production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” the United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that ANWR oil production will only provide a little over one year’s worth of oil for the US. “The USGS estimated that between 5.7 and 16.0 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil are in the coastal plain area of ANWR with a mean estimate of 10.4 billion barrels, of which 7.7 billion barrels falls within the Federal portion of the ANWR,” according to the report. It concludes: “ANWR oil production is not projected to have a large impact on world oil prices…. Additional oil production resulting from the opening of ANWR 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.”

Considering U.S oil consumption is currently over 19 million barrels per day (bpd), ANWR drilling will in no way be a viable solution toward reducing long-term dependency on foreign oil. The DOE report goes on to estimate that the drop in gasoline prices from ANWR drilling would be as low as 41 cents per barrel (in 2026) to as high as $1.44 per barrel (in 2027). One barrel of oil on February 27, 2012 was approximately $109. These minute savings will likely create no difference in gas prices.

“The analyses I’ve seen from ANWR is that peak production—and we’re typically talking about ten years or so until we get there—would be about a million bpd, and this is in the context of a world market of around 90 million bpd,” said Dean Baker, co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “So you’re talking about lowering the price of oil maybe one or two percent if you’re lucky. To my mind, you’re talking about risking a lot of environmental damage…for really very little gain.”

Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich was a Sierra Club member from 1984-1990, when the organization called ANWR drilling a “quick fix” and said “fuel efficiency and conservation measures have a greater potential for providing long-term energy security for our nation.” But at a California supporter rally this past weekend, Gingrich campaigned that drilling is the answer to lower gas prices and energy independence, emphasizing that Obama’s alternative-fuel policies are “fantasy that doesn’t work today.” He went on to blame Obama for the rising prices at the pump. “When you fill up your tank, you can think of gas prices as the Obama tax,” Gingrich said.

But what could be keeping gas prices high is the record high amount of U.S oil being exported to Europe, South America, Asia and elsewhere—over 1 billion barrels in 2011, according to the DOE’s Energy Information Administration. Oil exports have been increasing substantially in the past decade, from approximately 425 million barrels in 2005 to over 858 million barrels in 2010. So far, 2012 has seen a record number of oil exports each month.

In a speech to students at the University of Miami last Thursday, President Obama said: “Anyone who tells you we can drill our way out of this problem doesn’t know what they’re talking about, or just isn’t telling you the truth.” Fuel efficiency standards on new vehicles are both an environmental and economic win, Obama noted, saying that in the middle of the next decade, “you’ll be able to fill up your car every two weeks instead of every week—something that, over time, will save the typical family more than $8,000 at the pump.”