Wildlife Refuge or Oil Field? Developers' False Claims Gloss over Environmental Damage to Arctic Area

Article excerpt

In the next few weeks, you will be hearing a lot of rhetoric about why oil exploration should be allowed on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain.

As you might expect, the petroleum industry is all for opening this portion of Alaska's North Slope to development; and corporate types assure us the operation can be carried out without disrupting the environment.

Environmentalists vehemently oppose the move, arguing that our nation's only remaining intact wilderness ecosystem would be desecrated for at best a relatively short-term supply of oil.

Whom are we to believe? Let's play true or false with some of the claims that the dredge-and-drill crowd are making in response to the environmentalists' concerns.

There is no need to be alarmed at industrial activity on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Just look at the environmentally "flawless" development that has taken place at nearby Prudhoe Bay's giant oil field. Answer: False.

Prudhoe Bay is hardly a paragon. An average of 500 oil spills occur annually. Air pollution from the facility exceeds the total emissions of at least six states. Even though the actual gravel fill and extraction of the headquarters site cover only 10,000 acres or so, the entire industrial complex sprawls over 800 square miles of tundra. Snow in the Prudhoe Bay fields has high concentrations of toxic heavy metals. What's the effect of all this on wildlife? The birth rate of caribou in proximity to the oil development is way down. Numerous bird and fish populations have suffered from the environmental disturbances, which include contamination of surrounding freshwater ponds.

The actual drilling site in the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain would be about 12,000 acres, the same size as Washington's Dulles International Airport, so there is no reason to be worried. Answer: False.

The entire industrial complex would include 280 miles of roads, hundreds of miles of pipelines, 11 production facilities and two ports. Environmental impact would be felt far beyond the center of activity, perhaps in an area as large as 235 square miles.

The coastal plain is a frozen desert so there is little or nothing for industry to harm. Answer: False.

The wildlife refuge's coastal plain is brimming with life. It is a calving ground for the 152,000 strong Porcupine caribou herd and home to 200 species of animals, 350 species of plants and, in season, countless numbers of migratory birds. The coastal plain is also the nation's most important on-shore polar bear denning habitat and is crisscrossed by major rivers. …