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The Bonehead Compendium

The ANWR Debate

The BHC submitted an recent piece from Volume 52 (Arctic Drilling: The Pros) to the web forum The Skeptics Circle, which was hosted by PZ Myers at Pharyngula. In this piece we took issue with assertions made by ANWR pro-drilling advocates, Neal Boortz and Noel Ward, who claimed that drilling in the Section 1002 of ANRW would cause no environmental damage and, in Ward's opinion, the wildlife in Alaska actually respond well to human development. The BHC has also demonstrated, as have many others, that the potential oil reserves would do next to nothing to alleviate foreign oil dependency.
Fellow Skeptic's Circle participant Dean Esmay ridiculed the environmental position that damage would be done and, even if it did happen, the north coastal plain of ANWR is such an inhospitable and barren place that no one should be concerned anyway. He proceeded to claim the intellectual high ground by asserting that an anti-drilling stance is simply the reactionary position of "enviro-demagogues" who, in his opinion, know nothing about the region in question. The original BHC piece did not explicitly assume an anti-drilling position but, rather, the piece sarcastically pointed out that pro-drilling statements made by Boortz and Ward were self-evidently incorrect. Mr. Esmay's position is, of course, an echo of pro-drilling advocates in general, but while believing he occupied a superior position, he cited not one source that might have supported his assertions. We will detail these assertions and the confounding evidence that Mr. Esmay appears to be either unaware of, or chooses to wilfully ignore.


The US government withdrew the entire North Slope of Alaska as an entry in public land laws during World War II and engaged in extensive oil and gas exploration throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Under the Eisenhower administration, Secretary of the Interior Fred Andrew Seaton designated 8.9 million acres of the coastal plain and mountains of northeast Alaska as the Arctic National Wildlife Range(1).

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was brought into existence in 1980 by an Act of Congress called ANILCA (Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act). It designated a much larger area -- some 19.6 million acres -- as "protected," extending the original ANWR to the south and west. Of this large ANWR, an area termed Section 1002, some 1.5 million coastal acres, was not designated as wilderness and was reserved explicitly for oil and gas exploration. It is this so-called Section 1002 that is the subject of the ANWR drilling debate.(2)

Not a Vestige of Wilderness

Mr. Esmay began his argument by first quibbling about the use of the term "vestige of wilderness", asserting that Section 1002 was not at all a vestige of wilderness; that it is "an utterly enormous area of wilderness, surrounded by an area of wilderness even more expansive" and that it was "no such thing." It was, at first, hard to believe anyone would argue with such a statement, especially in view of the fact that the area is almost always described this way. But he did indeed have an issue with the phrase, claiming it inaccurate and emotionally charged.

While the term may possess some emotional weight, claiming that the term is inaccurate is to claim that the scientific government survey of potential conservation areas in Alaska (1952-53), entitled "The Last Great Wilderness," also demonstrates such an inaccuracy. After the initial 1960 establishment of ANWR, Secretary Seaton called the area "...one of our remaining wildlife and wilderness frontiers." Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, one of the Refuge's founders, described ANWR as "this last American living wilderness." Deputy Secretary of the Department of Interior, David Hayes, called the Refuge "one of the last pristine ecosystems of North America." Mr. Esmay continues to insist that the use of the term "vestige of wilderness" is simply wrong. It is not wrong; ANWR has been so described for decades(3).

The Coastal Plain is Barren, Dead

To be accurate, Mr. Esmay did not claim that the North Coastal plain of ANWR, Section 1002, is barren. He claimed that it is "mostly barren." He also described it variously as "sterile," "mostly sterile," "quite ugly," and "dead, ugly." According to Mr. Esmay, Section 1002 is not at all a nice place, devoid of life for most of the year:

the far northern coastal plain--which is, it is simply a matter of fact--frozen solid and without any significant wildlife for nine months of the year.
Polar Bears on the coastal plain of ANWR in winter, apparently unaware of the fact that they shouldn't be there.

Once again, it is difficult to understand how or why Mr. Espey has arrived at such conclusions because they are certainly not born out by the facts on the ground. Musk-oxen live on the North Coastal Plain year round. Polar bears den in Section 1002 throughout the winter and, in fact, the coastal plain is described by US Fish and Wildlife Service as, "the most important land denning habitat for the Beaufort Sea polar bear population."(4) The presence of dens is significant because only females who will birth cubs build dens in the winter and they tend to build dens on the shorelines of the ocean and rivers. Considering that exploration and drilling activity will occur on and near the shorelines -- indeed thoughout Section 1002 -- this will surely create havoc for these creatures. And while the region is frozen in winter, to say that no significant wildlife inhabits the place in winter is clearly wrong. The assertion that winter exploration and drilling activity will have no impact on any of the region's wildlife is a pro-drilling feel-good fantasy.

Of course, the larger value of the Coastal Plain is seen in the region's function as the spring time calving grounds for the Porcupine Caribou, whose population numbers around 130,000. It is also invaluable in the migratory patterns of huge numbers of snow geese, who populate the coastal plain to feed before beginning their journey to California. In all, over 130 species of birds use the coastal plain for nesting, feeding and other activities.

Mr. Esmay, as do all exploration and drilling advocates, insists in believing the fiction that winter activities in the region will have no impact, not only on the living things they don't seem to know live there in the winter, but on the tundra itself; the supposed theory being that this activity will all be carried out on ice roads and ice platforms when everything is "frozen solid." Unfortunately, this claim has also been shown to be false.

There Will Be No Damage

This sounds to good to be true, which, as we have oft been instructed, usually means it is.

The claim that all traces of winter exploration and drilling activity magically disappear once the snow melts is not born out by observation. 2-D seismic exploration in Section 1002 was carried out in the winters of 1984 and 1985. So-called "cat trains" and other vehicles traversed the snow-covered plain. Photographic evidence shows that scarring of the tundra is still visible today and that the tundra, so scarred, has yet to fully recover from activity which is now claimed will do no harm.

The seismic lines of the 2-D survey were roughly 4 miles apart, so, while long term damage was done, it was fairly limited. However, plans for further seismic exploration will involved a 3-D survey that requires seismic lines to be one-half mile apart, possibly less. Tundra damage expected from this survey is considered to be significant.

If one imagines that exploration activity in Section 1002 results in actual drilling, and at this point there is no reason to believe that it won't, it will be such activity that will undoubtedly have the greatest ill-effects upon the land and water resources. Prudhoe Bay activities, which have been ongoing for more than 30 years, serve as an ominous counter-example to any notion that oil companies will have everything under control.

The report, The Impact of Oil Development On Prudhoe Bay, details that, since 1996, there have been a yearly average of 409 spills of oil, acid and other toxic chemicals on the North Slope. Diesel fuel is commonly spilled, is especially harmful to the local fauna and has been found to persist in the tundra for decades. Vegetation recovers very poorly from spills of diesel fuel.

Of particular concern are spills of acids, which can cause severe shock to the tundra. Nortech Environmental & Engineering Consultants described one such incident that proved existing cleanup strategies ineffective(5):

In summer 1999, a tanker rollover incident spilled 1,763 gallons of an emulsified acid mixture over approximately 0.9 acre of frozen tundra in the Western Operating Unit of the Prudhoe Bay Oilfield. Frozen ground conditions were favorable to lateral spread of contamination and limited vertical penetration early on. Exothermic reaction melted ice and snow, causing a contaminated slush to form over much of the impact zone before refreezing. Snow cover at the site limited visibility and neutralization during response and recovery. Existing cleanup tactics, primarily developed primarily through response to petroleum spills, were insufficient for this toxic spill.

The clinical evaluation of this "event" conveys the difficult nature of cleanup tasks in the arctic, and the chilling conclusion that current cleanup tactics were "insufficient" should give anyone pause who might believe that, when spills do occur, technological solutions exist to deal with them. In some cases, they do not.

Prudhoe Bay also emits large volumes of greenhouse gases and nitrogen oxides, pumping more than 56,000 tons of such oxides in the arctic air every year. EPA emissions measurements show that this mass of pollutants is more than twice that produced by Washington, DC. And this is the legal activity.

As is often their wont, oil companies also hide malicious criminal behaviour. In 1999, a whistleblower revealed that British Petroleum had illegally disposed of toxic drilling wastes for three years. For this crime, BP paid $22 million in criminal and civil penalties while a BP contractor pleaded guilty to 15 violations of the Oil Pollution Act.

And this behaviour continues. cntodd at Freiheit und Wissen and also Majikthise notes that three spills recently went unreported to authorities and it now appears that Britsh Petroleum, which conducts Prudhoe Bay operations for all the major oil companies involved, has developed a zesty relish for covering up their shoddy performances. Once again, it was a whistleblower who had to come forth and reveal that the spills had occurred. Jason Leopold presents the details of this latest wrongdoing.

Beware of oil companies and their promises to do "no damage."

We Only Work in the Winter

This is a claim espoused by Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens (R), who, in April of 2002, said,

Oil and gas activity only takes place in the winter time -- not in the summertime.

It is difficult to understand how Mr. Stevens (and likewise Mr. Esmay) is able to say such a thing given Alaska's experience with Prudhoe Bay development, which now exhibits year round oil production activity.(6) It is easily imagined that the same thing will be true for Section 1002 should oil be discovered there. Prudhoe Bay demonstrates that, once found, oil's value is too great to turn off the spigot in the summer and Prudhoe Bay is an excellent example that should make anyone skeptical about claims that operations will occur only in winter.

Advocates draw another pro-drilling arrow from their quiver when they claim that, because exploration activity will only occur in winter, ice roads are used and no permanent roads are needed. As has already been demonstrated, this is a canard, since it is easily expected that once oil comes online operations will take place on a year round basis.

But even if the winter-only claim were adhered to, the construction of ice roads puts a tremendous strain on the water resources of the area. In the coastal plain, it is generally agreed that water resources are significantly fewer than is found on the North Slope at Prudhoe Bay. And Prudhoe Bay serves up another example that demonstrates the fallacy of the ice roads claim: every drill site in the North Slope complex is now served by a permanent gravel road.

Activity Will Be Restricted To 2000 Acres

No one believes this. At least, no one who knows anything about the development of Prudhoe Bay, which has seen nearly continuous expansion of that development's original 2100-acre area restriction. As recently as 2000, British Petroleum applied for and received expanded drilling and development rights for the Aurora field in the Prudhoe Bay complex.(7)
Click on image for a larger version
Development at Prudhoe Bay (2001). The black circle indicates the original 2100 acre region described by the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) of 1972.

But the real evidence that should make us wary of claims of limited development can be seen in the map presented(8), which cartographically tracks the history of Prudhoe Bay development. Over the course of thirty years, the Prudhoe Bay drilling operations footprint has increased many fold over the originally prescribed 2100 acres. Today, the total drilling footprint is 12,000 acres with drill sites spreading over 640,000 acres of the North Slope.

In 1972, the Department of the Interior conducted an environmental impact assessment and the resulting report (EIS) described gravel use, road mileage, number of wells, etc. To date, five times more wells exists than the EIS described. Four times the estimated gravel has been mined and twice the road mileage has been laid. Did the DoI originally misjudge things? Perhaps. But the misjudgement lies in the DoI believing oil field development would never expand beyond the original lease area. This is the real source of the errors in the 1972 Environmental Impact Statement. And those errors should be instructive now that such promises of restricted development have again been made regarding Section 1002.

The rules used to describe the surface area of development on these lands are also extremely dishonest. While the 2000 acre number is bandied about as some insignificant morsel in the vast tundra cake of the coastal plain, only actual drill platforms and surface buildings contacting the ground figure in the accounting of that number. Roads will not count, pipelines will not count, air fields will not count. Indeed, very little of the support infrastructure for oil operations counts at all. To say the least, this a disingenuous impact accounting strategy and it is clearly meant to allow the greatest possible coverage of available land while accounting for only a small fraction of the development that is actually there. Such dishonesty makes a mockery of anyone who would claim or believes that Section 1002 development is going to be done with respect for this wilderness.

Almost none of the infrastructure pictured here (Prudhoe Bay) would count toward the "footprint" of the oil extraction development in Section 1002
Alaskans Support ANWR Drilling

This is generally true and it is also true that the native population that continuously lives in ANWR has been uniformly supportive of the proposed activity as it has been described to them. At least that was the case until recent comments by Governor Frank Murkowski(R) that oil leases in Section 1002 would also finally make off-shore drilling economically feasible caused many of the town's residents serious concern.(9)

Kaktovik, Alaska is home to the Inupiat Eskimos, who dwell on a small island off the coast of Section 1002. Though the town has a population of 287, it is this native population's support that Congress and pro-dilling advocates often cite as an important reason in the push to open Section 1002 to drilling. And until Murkowski uttered the fateful words, "off shore drilling," the town backed the action. But now many in the town are doubtful that proceeding with oil development is wise.

The Inupiat depend heavily on the bowhead whale hunt and they now fear that Murkowski's promise of off shore drilling will severely impact the migration of the whales. It will certainly shift the migratory patterns of the whales as they will avoid the drilling rigs and that places them beyond the reach of the Inupiat whaling boats. At this point, a consensus amongst the Inupiat no longer exists.

Another group of natives, one that Congress and pro-drilling advocates assiduously ignore, have always opposed drilling in ANWR. The Gwich'in Nation, who call the coastal plain the “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” or the "Sacred Place Where Life Begins," live in Northeast Alaska and Northwest Canada.* They are and have always been especially concerned about the effects of exploration and drilling on the Porcupine Caribou, which they consider their life blood. In fact, their villages are strategically situated along the migratory range of the herd.(10) They are absolutely against the development of ANWR's coastal plain.

What we are seeing here is a selection effect when pro-drilling advocates cite support for Section 1002 development: cite only those Native populations that support the pro-drilling position. Not once, in any advocacy for drilling, is the opposition of the native Gwich'in mentioned. Perhaps advocates think that because the Gwich'in Nation straddles the US-Canada border, they don't really count. Well, they might think that but that is not really why they choose to ignore the protests of this Native population. It will be interesting to see the pro-drilling argument morph should the Inupiat people decide that the threat of off shore drilling is real and begin to oppose development more fully.

The larger question in this point really amounts to whether Alaskans should be the ones to determine the fate of this national wilderness. A majority of the rest of the country is against such development but pro-drilling advocates like to point out that a large majority of Alaskans support it. And this is true. But would the nation tolerate a proposal to dam the Colorado River and flood the Grand Canyon when water becomes a serious problem for Arizona? This question is not meant to be absurd but, rather, to demonstrate the quandaries the country will face when other national monuments and wildernesses come under attack by commercial forces that would use local public opinion to support such activity. Yes, locals may support it, but is that all such development requires? And make no mistake, there will be further environmental battles ahead, especially in the realm of oil development. Tom DeLay said that the ANWR decision was "about the precedent." (11)

* Clearly, Natives who actually live in ANWR have a rather different opinion of the coastal plain than Mr. Esmay's dim view of the place.


The deprecation of the environmental value of the ANWR coastal plain is one of the more bizarre tactics employed by pro-drilling advocates and, as one might expect, finds its disingenuous expression at the Heritage Foundation. Some key passages in Charlene Coon's article indicate that Mr. Esmay may have sourced this Heritage Foundation page for his insights. Apparently, irrelevent statements and baseless opinionating are mistaken as well-formed argument by Mr. Esmay.
No, it is not pristine. Remnants of oil exploration during the 1960's.

Though Senior Policy Analyst Charlene Coon appears to have no particular expertise in ecology, biology or environmental science, she writes quite dismissively of Section 1002 and claims that it is "not a pristine area." Further hand-waving has her noting that it is cold a lot and dark in the winter. And in an act of serious scholarly research, she cites Jonah Goldberg and his description of the coastal plain:

"[I]f you wanted a picture to go with the word 'Godforsaken' in the dictionary, ANWR would do nicely."

A damning indictment indeed by a world-renowned environmentalist.

Well, not really. Goldberg is no such a creature and Coon's citing him as her source for environmental opinions about ANWR is risible. She goes on to further describe the coastal plain as flat and treeless. A coastal plain in the arctic, flat and treeless? Who would have imagined? She is also appalled by the ugliness of the place even in summer:

The thick ice melts, but it creates puddles on the flat tundra and attracts thousands of mosquitoes.

And that is about the sum of her environmental evaluation. The evidence that leads her to the subjective assertion that the coastal plain of ANWR is ugly: puddles and bugs. Her environmental aesthetic is so offended by such a gross display of the natural world she likely thinks drilling ought to commence immediately, the thinking being that, well, it's ugly already so oil extraction can't possibly make it worse. Fortunately for the ecosystems of the world, Ms. Coon's obtuse aesthetic is not what biologists and ecologists pay much attention to when appraising a region's ecological value to life on this earth.

The true affront of the "ugly" argument -- if indeed one can call such blather an argument -- lies in the view that the coastal plain of ANWR-- or any part of the natural world -- is somehow worthless simply because it appears to be uncomfortable or unattractive to denizens of the Heritage Foundation. Anyone seriously involved in the debate about ANWR would laugh out loud at a presentation of such nonsense. Pro-drilling advocates should stop attempting to denigrate the ANWR coastal plain as some useless chunk of land with little value to anything or anyone. They only make themselves look ridiculous and it certainly doesn't help their position when they espouse things that are clearly absurd. Even the oil companies don't take this stand.

What It Really Means

Put aside, if you can, the utter pointlessness of drilling in the ANWR, for I think this assault on rationality has another, more pathetic side .... Like junkies, we are hooked on cheap oil and we don't care what it takes to extend, even for a moment, all that entails. When you hear the stories of ruthless addicts who attack and rob feeble 75 year old ladies to help finance their next rock of cocaine, think of the United States of America; a land where we will gladly despoil a nearly pristine wilderness so we can drive our massive cars, unfettered, for one more year. And like the crack heads, we, have only two states; high or desperate. And neither has anything to do with reality.
-- Piltdown man.

The stewardship of America's lands that saw its beginnings in Teddy Roosevelt's concern for the wild places of this vast country has always been at loggerheads with the country's economic development. What is shameful about the ANWR issue is not just that the region will be opened for oil extraction but that we knew full well we were becoming more and more dependent on foreign oil. And we knew, or should have known, that one day it would be a problem. Many strategies might have been employed to avoid our current situation, but economic and political forces refused to act and, ultimately, the American public, by sins of omission, will pay dearly for this behaviour. We are beginning to pay now and we find ourselves making up excuses and arguments justifying the irrational behaviour of ignoring a reality that drilling in ANWR is now making known: the oil is running out and there are more and more people who want it. The dissembling about the beauty of wild places is telling and it merely indicates, as Kunstler would say, that we are sleep-walking into the future. We will now sooner scour and ravage the last places on earth in a blind effort to keep things the way they have been rather than face the consequences of decades of oil-driven profligacy and deal with them in a rational and sound manner. This country was founded by a grand vision but now we are unable to look, to see, to think about anything beyond tomorrow.

(1). US Fish and Wildlife Service, 2000, Potential Impacts of Proposed Oil and Gas Development on the Arctic Refuge's Coastal Plain: Historical Overview and Issues of Concern.

(2). Ibid.

(3). Ibid.

(4). Ibid.

(5) Bioremediation, 2001, Nortech Environmental & Engineering Consultants

(6). Bureau of Land Management, 2004, Alpine satellite development plan: Final Environmental Impact Statement, Vol. 1

(7) Prudhoe Bay Unit, 2000, Application for the Sixth Expansion of the Unit Area and Formation of the Aurora Participating Area. Findings and Decision of the Commissioner, Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

(8) Geological Information Service Support Center

(9) The Washington Post, April 23, 2005, Alaska Town Split Over Drilling in Wildlife Refuge

(10) Gwich'in Steering Committee Homepage

(11) The Arctic Refuge; The Last Frontier, Jack Kelly.


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