Would oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge hurt the wildlife?

Would oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge hurt the wildlife?

— Alexander Brower, Jefferson, WI

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), which oversees all of America’s 540 wildlife refuges, Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is “among the most complete, pristine and undisturbed ecosystems on Earth.” USFWS biologists fear that opening up ANWR’s disputed coastal plain to oil extraction would be disastrous for area wildlife dependent upon an unspoiled environment.

While hundreds of bird, mammal and fish species would be impacted by oil development within ANWR, none would suffer quite as much as the caribou, which migrate 400 miles each year to the coastal plain of the Beaufort Sea to give birth. Indeed, as many as 50,000 calves are born each year right on top of where seismologists estimate the U.S. could extract as much as 10 billion barrels of oil. The caribou feed on the region’s nutritious lichens, which bloom in late spring and early summer, providing crucial sustenance for nursing calves and their mothers. Biologists fear that the establishment of oil rigs on the coastal plain could force the caribou to abandon their traditional birthing grounds, initially lowering birth rates and eventually jeopardizing the very survival of the already dwindling herd.

Polar bears could also be profoundly affected by oil drilling in ANWR. Its coastal plain has been determined to be the most important on-shore habitat for polar bears in Alaska. “Biologists fear that if oil drilling is permitted on the coastal plain, disturbance from heavy machinery could cause mothers to abandon their young cubs,” says Joel Bennett of the non-profit Defenders of Wildlife. “Because polar bears reproduce at a slow rate, these disturbances could lead to serious population declines,” he adds.

Despite claims that improved technologies will minimize the industrial “footprint” of extraction facilities within ANWR, government geologists contend that potential oil reserves may be located in many small accumulations in complex geological formations, rather than in one giant field (as was previously discovered to be the case at Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope). Consequently, development on the coastal plain—which is located more than 30 miles from the end of the nearest pipeline and more than 50 miles from the nearest gravel road and oil support facilities—could likely require a large number of small production sites spread across the landscape, connected by an infrastructure of roads, pipelines, power plants, processing facilities, loading docks, airstrips, gravel pits, utility lines and landfills.

The fragile tundra is extremely sensitive to human exposure and still exhibits scars from exploration vehicles that passed through almost 20 years ago. With 95 percent of Alaska’s North Slope already open to oil exploration and development, ANWR represents the last frontier of protected habitat in the coastal region.

CONTACTS: Arctic Protection Network, http://www.protect-the-arctic.com; Defenders of Wildlife “Save the Arctic Refuge” Program, (202) 682-9400, http://www.savearcticrefuge.org; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Information, (800) 362-4546, http://arctic.fws.gov.