Potential Impacts of Proposed Oil and Gas Development on the Arctic Refuge's Coastal Plain: Historical Overview and Issues of Concern
History of the Arctic Refuge as it relates to Oil in Alaska
Interest in the oil resources of northern Alaska began with reports in the early 1900s of surface oil seeps along the arctic coast east of Point Barrow. In 1923, the 23-million acre Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 4 was established in northwestern Alaska to secure a supply of oil for future national security needs. That area was later renamed the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A).
During World War II, the entire North Slope of Alaska - 48.8 million
acres - was withdrawn from entry under the public land laws and thus held
for exclusive use by the U.S. government for military purposes. Extensive
government-sponsored exploration for oil and gas occurred in the NPR-A
during the 1940-1950s.
In the 1950s,
post-war construction and accelerating resource development across Alaska
raised concerns about the potential loss of this region's special natural
values. In 1952-53, government scientists conducted a comprehensive survey
of potential conservation areas in Alaska. Their report, "The Last Great
Wilderness," identified the undisturbed northeast corner of Alaska as the
best opportunity for protection.
Two major consequences followed:
These two actions laid out a general land use pattern for northern Alaska by setting aside about 43 million acres for potential oil and gas development, while the northeastern corner was protected for wildlife and wilderness conservation.
Generalized view of land status by 1961. The majority of the tan area north of the Continental Divide was ultimately selected by the State under the Alaska Statehood Act (1959) or Native Corporations established by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (1971), and most of it is therefore available for oil and gas leasing.
The largest oil field in North America was discovered on state land in the Prudhoe Bay area in 1968. Additional petroleum discoveries have been made on Alaska's North Slope, including the major fields of Kuparuk, Endicott and Pt. McIntyre. Oil is transported from the North Slope by the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez in south-central Alaska, where it is then transferred to oil tankers.
Reserves of oil were believed to also exist in the Arctic National
Wildlife Range. The fate of the Range was extensively debated in Congress
for years before passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands
Conservation Act (ANILCA-1980).
The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation in 1978 and 1979 designating the entire original Range, including the now contested arctic coastal tundra, as Wilderness. The Senate's version, however, required studies of wildlife and petroleum resources, and the potential impacts of oil and gas development within the northern part of the Range. It postponed the decision to authorize oil and gas development or Wilderness designation. Differences between the House and Senate were not worked out by a conference committee in the usual manner. Instead, following the 1980 election, the House accepted the Senate bill and President Carter signed ANILCA into law. ANILCA doubled the size of the Range, renamed it the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and designated most of the original Range as Wilderness.
The part of the
original Range that was not designated Wilderness was addressed in Section
1002 of ANILCA, and is now referred to as the "1002 Area." Section 1002
outlined additional information that would be needed before Congress could
designate the area as Wilderness, or permit oil development. Studies of
the 1002 Area included a comprehensive inventory and assessment of the
fish and wildlife resources, an analysis of potential impacts of oil and
gas exploration and development on those resources, and a delineation of
the extent and amount of potential petroleum resources.
In Section 1003 of ANILCA, Congress specifically stated that the "production of oil and gas from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is prohibited and no leasing or other development leading to production of oil and gas from the [Refuge] shall be undertaken until authorized by an act of Congress."
The U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service conducted fish and wildlife baseline studies of the 1002
Area beginning in 1981, and the results were published in several volumes,
culminating with a final report in 1986. During the winters of 1984 and
1985, seismic exploration was conducted along 1,400 miles of survey lines
in the area. This work was conducted by a private exploration firm and
funded by a group of oil companies. Several oil companies independently
conducted other geological studies including surface rock sampling,
mapping and geochemical testing. Data from this program are held as
confidential by the oil companies who participated in the program.
Follow-up studies continued to assess the impacts of the winter
exploration program on fish and wildlife and their habitats.
A land exchange completed in 1983 transferred the subsurface title of Kaktovik village corporation lands (Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation (KIC)) from the Federal government to the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (a for-profit Native corporation established by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act). This allowed for an exploratory well to be drilled by industry in 1985 within the Refuge's boundary on these private lands. The well was later plugged and abandoned, and the results of the drilling operations remain confidential.
1990 photo of the KIC exploratory well drilled in 1985.
Information gathered from the biological, seismic and geological studies were used to complete a Legislative Environmental Impact Statement (LEIS) that described the potential impacts of oil and gas development. This LEIS included the Secretary's final report and recommendation, and was submitted to Congress in 1987. The report concluded that oil development and production in the 1002 Area would have major effects on the Porcupine Caribou herd and muskoxen. Major effects were defined as "widespread, long-term change in habitat availability or quality which would likely modify natural abundance or distribution of species." Moderate effects were expected for wolves, wolverine, polar bears, snow geese, seabirds and shorebirds, arctic grayling and coastal fish. Major restrictions on subsistence activities by Kaktovik residents would also be expected. In the report, the Secretary of Interior recommended that Congress authorize an oil and gas leasing program that would avoid unnecessary adverse effects on the environment.
Congress failed to act on the recommendation, first in 1989 following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and again in 1991 when a provision to open the Arctic Refuge to development was dropped from the National Energy Policy Act. In 1995, Congress passed budget legislation that included a provision to allow drilling in the Refuge. President Clinton vetoed the bill, stating "I want to protect this biologically rich wilderness permanently."
How much Oil is in the Arctic Refuge?
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) updated its estimates of petroleum resources in the Refuge in 1998 by re-analyzing the original seismic data from 1984-1985 along with more recent data from seismic surveys and drilling in adjacent areas. Using the updated report and recent oil prices, the USGS estimated that, assuming a price of $24 per barrel, there is a 95% chance of finding 1.9 billion barrels (BBO) of economically recoverable oil in the Arctic Refuge's 1002 Area; a 5% chance of finding 9.4 BBO; and a 50% chance of finding 5.3 BBO.
At prices less than $16 per barrel, there is no economically
recoverable oil in the 1002 Area. (Present oil prices are ranging between
$25 to $35 per barrel.) Nearly 1 million barrels of oil a day are produced
from the existing oil fields in areas west of the Arctic Refuge, and new
wells are brought into production each year. Americans use 19 million
barrels of oil each day, or 7 billion barrels of oil per year. There is,
therefore, a 50% chance of finding a 9 month's supply of oil in the 1002
Area, at $24 per barrel.
Recently the Energy Information Administration of the Department of Energy stated that the Refuge, in combination with offshore State waters and adjacent private lands may, at a 5% probability, contain 16 BBO. This estimate of technologically available oil does not factor in the economic costs of development including the expenses of finding, drilling and transportation to market, nor the construction and maintenance of pipelines and facilities.
Ongoing leasing activities and advancing oil recovery technologies on Alaska's North Slope and Beaufort Sea continue to provide the industry with new opportunities for exploration and development outside the boundaries of the Arctic Refuge.
The Unique Conservation Values of the Arctic Refuge
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the largest wildland unit in the National Wildlife Refuge System. The Refuge is America's finest example of an intact, naturally functioning community of arctic/subarctic ecosystems. Such a broad spectrum of diverse habitats occurring within a single protected unit is unparalleled in the circumpolar north.
When the Eisenhower Administration established the original Arctic Range in 1960, Secretary of Interior Seaton described it as:
"one of the world's great wildlife areas. The great diversity of vegetation and topography in this compact area, together with its relatively undisturbed condition, led to its selection as ... one of our remaining wildlife and wilderness frontiers."
Within the Arctic Refuge, the Brooks Range mountains compress the coastal plain and foothills tundra to a 20-40 mile wide band between the mountains and the sea. In contrast, the mountains further west rise far away from the Arctic Ocean coast, creating broad coastal tundra ranging 100-200 miles north to south in the Prudhoe Bay and NPR-A areas. Although the 1002 Area is only 10% of the total Refuge acreage, it includes most of the Refuge's coastal plain and arctic foothills ecological zones. The 1002 Area contains just 4% of Alaska's coastal plain and foothills zones. These are the only such lands where petroleum development is prohibited by Congress. This Area is critically important to the ecological integrity of the whole Arctic Refuge, providing essential habitats for numerous internationally significant migratory species.
The compactness and proximity of a number of arctic and subarctic ecological zones in the Arctic Refuge provides for greater plant and animal diversity than in any other similar sized land area on Alaska's North Slope.
The Refuge is also an important part of a larger international network of protected arctic and subarctic areas. In Canada's Yukon Territory, the government and First Nations people protected the coastal tundra and adjacent mountains by establishing Ivvavik and Vuntut National Parks, where oil exploration and production are not allowed.
Impacts of oil and gas exploration and development on Refuge resources
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the most pristine unit in the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Oil and gas exploration and development in the Refuge would permanently and irreversibly:
Newer technologies that are applied today in Alaska's expanding North
Slope oil fields include directional drilling that allows for multiple
well heads on smaller drill pads; the re-injection of drilling wastes into
the ground, which replaces surface reserve pits; better delineation of oil
reserves using 3-dimensional seismic surveys, which has reduced the number
of dry holes; and use of temporary ice pads and ice roads for conducting
exploratory drilling and construction in the winter. As the oil fields
expand east and west, additional oil reserves are consequently being
tapped from smaller satellite fields that rely on the existing
infrastructure at Prudhoe Bay and Kuparuk.
The 100-mile wide 1002 Area, however, 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. Potential oil reserves are located in many small accumulations in complex geological formations, rather than in one giant field as was discovered at Prudhoe Bay. Consequently, development in the 1002 Area would require a large number of small production sites spread over a large region, and connected by an infrastructure of roads, pipelines, power plants, processing facilities, loading docks, dormatories, airstrips, gravel pits, utility lines and landfills.
A large amount of
water is needed for oil drilling and site development, but water resources
are much more limited in the 1002 Area, compared to areas to the west at
Prudhoe Bay and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. In winter, only
about nine million gallons of liquid water are available in the 1002 Area,
which is enough to feeze into and maintain only 10 miles of ice roads.
Therefore, full exploration and development could not rely on temporary
ice pads and roads, but rather, it would require a network of permanent
gravel pads and roads. If sufficient amounts of oil were found, drilling
would occur year-round from permanent gravel pads and oil would be
transported by pipelines feeding into the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System at
While the physical "footprint" of the existing North Slope oil facilities and roads covers about 10,000 acres, that current industrial complex sprawls across an 800 square mile region, extending nearly 100 miles from east to west, and it continues to grow as new oil fields are developed.
The effects of oil field development in the Arctic Refuge would extend far beyond the "footprint" of gravel pads and roads, and would cause many cumulative impacts including:
Oil and gas exploration and development would impact the fish and wildlife and their habitats, most notably caribou, muskoxen, polar bears, and migratory birds, as well as damage tundra vegetation and soils.
In late spring, just as the snow recedes and the
tundra plants turn green, the Porcupine Caribou herd, numbering 129,000,
migrates from south of the Brooks Range in the Arctic Refuge and Canada to
give birth to their young on the arctic coastal tundra.
The caribou's preferred food during calving season is higher in nutrition, more digestible, and more available within the 1002 Area than in surrounding areas. To successfully reproduce, female caribou must be able to move freely throughout the 1002 Area to find adequate food resources to build up their fat reserves and milk. This allows them to produce healthy calves. Cows with newborn calves are particularly sensitive, and commonly move as much as 1.5 miles away from human disturbance. This has been well-documented in the vicinity of existing North Slope oil fields.
The Arctic Refuge's coastal plain has been the birthing ground for the majority of Porcupine Caribou cows in all but three of the last 18 years. In those 3 years (1987, 1988 and 2000), snow remained on the tundra longer than usual, forcing the caribou to have their calves in areas farther east or inland. Calf survival was poorer in those years due to lower food nutrition and higher levels of predation.
Although the population of caribou (Central Arctic herd) in the vicinity of North Slope oil fields increased in the early years of oil field development, the herd has declined since 1992. The Porcupine Caribou is expected to decrease in the face of 1002 Area development. There are fundamental differences between the calving areas of these two herds. In the case of the Central Arctic herd, there is a greater amount of alternative calving area available for displaced cows to move to because the mountains are much farther from the ocean. The 1002 Area is only one-fifth the size of the area used by the Central Arctic caribou herd, but six times as many caribou use the 1002 Area. In the Arctic Refuge, where the mountains are close to the coast, few alternative areas would be available for displaced cows. Therefore, development in the 1002 Area would result in:
A reduction in annual calf survival of as little as 5% would be sufficient to cause a decline in the Porcupine caribou population.
About 250 muskoxen live year-round in the 1002 area
of the Arctic Refuge. They use smaller areas in winter when snow limits
available habitat. In order to survive cold weather and poor forage
conditions, muskoxen reduce their activity and movements in winter to
conserve energy. Muskoxen give birth four to six weeks before summer
forage is available. Therefore, females must maintain body fat throughout
the winter to successfully rear a calf. Calf production and animal
survival is influenced by environmental conditions such as snow depth and
the length of the snow season. In recent years, the number of muskox
calves produced in the 1002 Area has declined.
Muskoxen respond to predators and other disturbances by moving into a defensive group from which they protect themselves with sharp horns. If groups are disturbed enough, they will run. This can result in the deaths of young calves that are left behind. Muskoxen in the 1002 Area are most frequently found along or adjacent to large rivers flowing across the coastal plain. If petroleum exploration and development takes place, these large rivers are likely sites for gravel and water removal as well as transportation corridors.
The most probable effects of petroleum exploration and development on muskoxen include:
Refuge's coastal plain provides the most important land denning habitat
for the Beaufort Sea polar bear population. Only females that are going to
give birth to cubs build dens in the winter. These females den on either
ocean ice or on land, and those that den on land choose sites along
shoreline bluffs or along steep creek banks where snow drifts early in the
Based on studies of radio-collared polar bears of the Beaufort Sea population between 1981 and 2000, 53 dens were located on the mainland coast of Alaska and Canada. Of these 53 dens, 22 (42%) were within the Arctic Refuge's 1002 Area.
Maternal polar bears with newborn cubs can be prematurely displaced from their winter dens by oil exploration activities. This displacement may result in potentially fatal human-bear conflicts, and may expose the cubs to increased mortality due to harsh winter conditions for which they are not yet prepared.
135 species of
birds are known to use the 1002 Area, including numerous shorebirds,
waterfowl, loons, songbirds, and raptors. Oil development in the Arctic
Refuge would result in habitat loss, disturbance, and displacement or
abandonment of important nesting, feeding, molting and staging areas.
One species of bird that could be greatly impacted by oil development is the snow goose. Large numbers of snow geese, varying each year from 15,000 to more than 300,000 birds, feed on the Arctic Refuge coastal tundra for three to four weeks each fall, on their way from nesting grounds on Banks Island in Canada to wintering grounds primarily in California's Central Valley. They feed on cottongrass and other plants to build up fat reserves in preparation for their journey south, eating as much as a third of their body weight every day. The rich vegetation of the coastal tundra enables them to increase fat reserves by 400% in only two to three weeks.
Snow geese feed on small patches of vegetation that are widely distributed across the Refuge's coastal tundra, so a large area is necessary to meet their needs. They are extremely sensitive to disturbance, often flying away from their feeding sites when human activities occur several miles distant. Oil exploration and development would displace snow geese from areas that are critically important to them.
Seismic exploration involves sending sound waves into the ground, recording how they reflect back, and interpreting the results to construct an image of subsurface geology to determine if oil may be present. A seismic exploration program in the Arctic is typically a large operation with many people and vehicles working in severe weather, driving across vast, remote areas. Seismic exploration programs are intrusive and leave "footprints." Although such exploration is conducted in winter, snow cover on the 1002 Area is often shallow and uneven, providing little protection for sensitive tundra vegetation and soils. The amount of damage depends on the type of vegetation, texture and ice content of the soil, the surface shape, snow depth, and type of vehicle.
After 2-dimensional (2-D) exploration in the 1002 Area in the winters of 1984 and 1985, monitoring of more that 100 permanent plots along 1,400 miles of seismic lines has documented long-lasting impacts. While many areas recovered during the first 10 years, some trails had still not recovered by 1999, 15 years after disturbance. Some of the trails have become troughs visible from the air. Others show changes in the amount and types of tundra plants. In some areas, permafrost (permanently frozen soil) melted and the trails remain wetter than they were previously. Some sites will take decades to recover, if ever.
[1,400 miles of
seismic lines were surveyed in the 1002 Area during the winters of 1984
and 1985 to determine the amount and distribution of petroleum resources.]
March, 1985, compacted the snow and damaged underlying plants during
seismic exploration activities.]
[A winter 1984
seismic trail in the 1002 Area seen in June 2000.]
[Trail damage to
tussock tundra the summer following winter seismic surveys.]
Seismic trail near Marsh Creek in the 1002 Area:
Seismic exploration is conducted every winter on the North Slope of Alaska, west of the Refuge. New vehicle tracks and older ones in various stages of recovery are visible on the tundra in the summer. Today, 3-dimensional (3-D) seismic surveys, as conducted west of the Refuge boundary, require a much more dense grid of lines to collect all the data necessary for creating 3-D images of oil reserves. While the 1984-85 2-D trails on the Arctic Refuge were 4 miles apart, 3-D trails would be one half mile or less apart. The amount of damage to vegetation and soils on the Refuge would be much greater from 3-D seismic surveys than from the 2-D seismic surveys conducted in the 1980s.
In the 1950's, a group of visionary scientists and conservationists recognized northeast Alaska as one of our Nation's last truly wild, natural areas. Since that time, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge remains a promise to the American people that this National natural treasure will be protected.
As one of the Refuge's founders, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas declared "This last American living wilderness must remain sacrosanct... This is - and must forever remain - a roadless, primitive area where all food chains are unbroken, where the ancient ecological balance provided by nature is maintained."
Biologist Olaus Murie stated that the Arctic Refuge should be preserved "as a help to us for our understanding of the natural processes in the universe... We have only begun to understand the basic energies which through the ages have made this planet habitable. If we are wise, we will cherish what we have left of such places in our land.
During the ANILCA deliberations in the late 1970s, Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus said:
"In some places, such as the Arctic Range, the wildlife and natural values are so magnificent and so enduring that they transcend the value of any mineral that may lie beneath the surface. Such minerals are finite. Production inevitably means changes whose impacts will be measured in geologic time in order to gain marginal benefits that may last a few years."
The Clinton Administration opposes efforts to allow oil and gas development on the Arctic Refuge's 1002 Area. David Hayes, the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Interior, recently stated in a congressional committee hearing that:
"The wildlife and wilderness values of the Refuge are irreplaceable resources that we have an opportunity to pass on to future generations. We should not relinquish that opportunity, particularly in furtherance of a flawed, short-term response to higher oil prices or an effort to increase federal revenues. Just as the Administration does not consider building a dam in the Grand Canyon during times of drought, we will not consider opening one of the last pristine ecosystems of North America during an oil price spike."
To learn more about the Arctic Refuge and its unique wildlife and
wilderness values, see our other web links...
Text and graphics by USFWS staff
This page should be cited as follows:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2000. Potential impacts of proposed oil