Why Oil and Wildlife Don't Mix

World Watch, May 2001 | Go to article overview

Why Oil and Wildlife Don't Mix


National energy policy, ostensibly an oxymoron in the United States, is back in the headlines thanks to volatile oil prices, skyrocketing natural gas costs, and California's power crunch. The new Bush administration is right to recognize the need for a comprehensive energy strategy. But its proposal is neither compassionate nor conservative, focusing on domestic oil exploration in ecologically sensitive regions rather than on energy efficiency and the development of more sustainable sources.

The most controversial element of the new Bush strategy involves the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling and development. Dubbed "the Serengeti of Alaska" by biologists, the refuge is North America's most diverse, intact, naturally functioning community of arctic and subarctic ecosystems. In 1960, the Eisenhower administration's Secretary of the Interior, Fred Seaton, set aside the 9 million acre region, calling it "one of the world's great wildlife areas." But Theodore Roosevelt's party has since strayed from its conservation roots, and President Bush is leading the charge to develop part of the refuge.

Proponents of drilling the region argue it can be done in environmentally benign fashion. But despite improvements in oil exploration and development technologies, significant ecological consequences are expected. These include soil and water contamination from spills; alteration of vegetation and drainage from roads; and the disturbance of subsistence hunting opportunities for muskoxen, polar bears, caribou, and other wildlife. Nor do these new technologies mitigate the atmospheric effects of local haze, acid rain, and global warming.

Another slippery argument advanced by advocates of drilling is that it will reduce dependence on oil imports. …

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