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Thursday, 2 August, 2001, 15:30 GMT 16:30 UK
Ice and oil: The risks
Graphic BBC
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

President Bush believes the US oil industry would drill "in an environmentally friendly way" if it enters the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

Despite the industry's best efforts though, a marked impact on the flora and fauna of north Alaska seems inevitable.

The impact will have to be weighed against the possible gains in new energy resources. And several US Government agencies suggest those gains could be quite modest.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) describes the refuge as "among the most complete, pristine, and undisturbed ecosystems on Earth".

As long ago as 1987, an environmental impact statement submitted to Congress said oil development and production in the coastal plain in the north of the ANWR would have major effects on one of its two caribou herds, and on its musk oxen.

It also predicted less marked effects on wolves, wolverines, polar bears, snow geese, birds and fish.

Nine months' oil

Americans use about 19 million barrels of oil a day. The US Geological Survey estimated in 2000 that, assuming a price of $24 a barrel, there was a 50% chance of finding 5.3 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil in the area.

Musk oxen USFWS
Musk oxen calf numbers have fallen
At current prices, that means there is something like a 50% chance of finding enough oil in the refuge to keep the US going for nine months.

New technologies used elsewhere in Alaska on the existing North Slope oilfields are helping to reduce the environmental impact.

They include re-injecting drilling wastes into the ground; directional drilling, reducing the area needed for well-heads; and using temporary ice pads and roads during the winter.

Lasting impact

But the Bureau of Land Management estimates the water needed for oil development at between eight and 15 million gallons (57 million litres) over a five-month period.

In the winter, though, only about nine million gallons (34 million litres) may be available in the entire area, enough for only 10 miles (16 kilometres) of ice roads.

So gravel roads, which are permanent and more damaging, may be inevitable.

The USFWS lists the impacts it thinks would affect the refuge. They include:

  • disturbing wildlife
  • loss of subsistence hunting opportunities
  • increased predation on nesting birds
  • changes in vegetation
  • contamination of soil and water by fuel and oil spills.
Some species would be significantly affected. There are concerns that the 250 musk oxen which live all year round in the area would be disturbed by the drilling, and would probably produce fewer calves.

Polar bear and cub USFWS
Bears and people may clash more often
The number of calves they have produced in recent years has declined.

Seismic exploration for oil could force female polar bears and their newborn cubs from their dens. This would expose the cubs prematurely to harsh winter weather, and could also provoke conflict with people.

The exploration would also involve vehicles driving across the tundra in a grid pattern, with high potential for damage to soil and plants.

Caribou at risk

On the North Slope, west of the ANWR, tracks on the tundra are still visible 15 years after they were made.

The coastal plain is the area where the females of the porcupine caribou herd, about 129,000 animals in all, choose to give birth in late spring.

They shy away from any human disturbance, and would probably move elsewhere if oil exploration or drilling were going on.

In recent years, when late-lying snow has forced them away, the caribou have produced fewer calves.

The USFWS says a reduction in annual calf survival of even 5% would be enough to cause a decline in the Porcupine caribou population.

Photos courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service

See also:

09 May 01 | Americas
Clash over Arctic reserves
03 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
Tourist threat to Arctic
12 Jun 01 | Americas
Arctic wilderness at risk
02 Aug 01 | Americas
US House backs Arctic drilling
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