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Thursday, 10 May, 2001, 11:12 GMT 12:12 UK
Drilling for oil in Alaska: Richard Lister quizzed

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The BBC's Richard Lister has just returned from a remote part of the Alaskan Arctic where new plans to start drilling for oil in a wildlife refuge are causing controversy.

The Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is one of the world's last untouched ecosystems. It is also believed to contain enough oil to provide thousands of millions of barrels to help alleviate the US energy shortage.

Opposition to the drilling plans is mounting among conservation groups. Not so among the locals, as Richard found out.

"Much of their income now comes from taxes on the oil companies, and I found few people who opposed new onshore drilling - even in ANWR", says Lister.

So if the locals do not oppose the idea, should anyone else? Are global conservation concerns more important than local needs? Did Richard's views change after his icy trip?

Click here to read Richard's report about the Alaskan oil issue.

Richard Lister took your questions in a live forum and was joined by Athan Manuel, director of US Public Interest Research Group's Arctic Campaign, and Charli Coon, Senior Policy Analyst, Energy and Environment of the Heritage Foundation.

Highlights of interview:

Stephen Edwards, Winchester, UK:

Surely, as long as the oil companies ensure that the environment is not damaged by the drilling and extraction then drilling and extracting oil in Alaska would be OK, wouldn't it?

Athan Manuel:

The problem with that premise is that it hasn't been proven to be true anywhere where the oil operates. The clearest place to check that out is at Prudhoe Bay. If you look at the area to the west of the refuge, which before they built the trans-Alaska pipeline used to be a pristine wilderness area similar to the refuge. But you have seen 20 to 30 years of oil development there and now Prudhoe Bay is one of the most industrialised parts of the world. There are thousands of roads, pipelines and drilling pads all over the tundra. Prudhoe Bay is the largest oilfield in the United States and as a result it averages about 400 oil spills a year - which is one spill about every 22 hours. So we have seen the oil industry's track record in Prudhoe Bay and we don't want to see that repeated in the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge.

Richard Lister:

It is true at the same time isn't it that although there appears a large number of spills that have been reported, some of those are really very small spills indeed - it could be just a pint or so of, say, hydraulic fluid on the ice which can be cleaned up pretty quickly. Does it really give a very fair portrayal to say that there have been 400 spills a year?

Athan Manuel:

What I think that points out though is the nature of the business - it is a sloppy business and mistakes happen whether we are talking about large oil spills - like the Exxon Valdez or the most recent spill that Phillips had where they spilled 94,000 gallons of oil in salt water onto the tundra. So the nature of the industry is that accidents happen. We don't want to see any kind of activity that could have those kind of effects on an area as pristine and as wild as the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge.

Peter Minting, London, UK: :

Wouldn't the so-called US "energy shortage" be avoided if a limit on fuel consumption was introduced? When the United States has more cars per head than anywhere else in the world, why isn't there more focus on energy consumption rather than more drilling?

Charli Coon:

I think that there is an emphasis on energy conservation as well as increasing the supply. But as the President has said, we are not going to be able to conserve ourselves out of this energy crisis. We have not had an energy policy for eight years. In fact our energy policy for eight years was to have no energy policy and to just muddle through. Perhaps in a socialistic society you may want to tell people that they can no longer drive their cars or they can't have their air conditioners on or they can't turn their heat up above a certain temperature. But this is a democracy and what the President is looking at is a balanced approach of additional production and development as well as energy efficiency and conservation measures.

Matt, Amsterdam, Netherlands:

With current projections of oil usage, what would be the life expectancy of the fields in the northern coastal plain of ANWR? Do we really know how much oil is really there?

Charli Coon:

The estimates are that we would have about 20 to 30 years' supply. It is not just oil - I want to make that very clear - Congress set aside about 1.5 million acres of land in ANWR for oil and natural gas exploration. So we are talking about out of 19 million acres we are talking about 1.9 million acres and of that we are talking about drilling on say 2,000 acres. The area in which the drilling and exploration would take place is not pristine land. The photos that are shown on television are of these beautiful mountains, trees and wildlife. However, the area we are talking about is already developed - there are local people already living in the area, there are already roads developed there and again we are talking about a very small piece of land.

Richard Lister:

I see that Athan is shaking his head. Matthew Jamison makes the same point.

Matthew Jamison, Oxford, England:

We are talking about a very small portion - 5% - of ANWR being opened to exploration are we not? This is a fairly small percentage of a much larger refuge.

Athan Manuel:

The key word that you mentioned there is refuge. This is part of America's public land. This was set aside in 1960 originally by President Eisenhower before he left office. This is the only public land north of the Arctic Circle in the United States. It has been preserved as a refuge for 40 years now and that is what it was supposed to be - a refuge for wilderness, a refuge for wildlife.

I think Ms Coon is wrong to say that in 1980 Congress set this area aside for oil and gas development - they did the opposite - they made it part of a refuge system and it has been administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service for 20 years for wildlife. When you look at the north slope of Alaska, the oil industry already has access to 95% of Alaska's north slope. There is no shortage of land for the oil industry to exploit in the north slope. So the oil industry doesn't need anymore land in the Arctic. But what we do need is some public land up there - some areas that can be set aside for future generations to enjoy.

Richard Lister:

I came back from the Arctic a couple of weeks ago and certainly the people on the part of ANWR that is facing possible development were quite strongly in favour of that development for economic reasons.

John Harrison, England:

Without oil do the indigenous people of the region have a future?

Athan Manuel:

We are not saying to shut down the entire oil industry in the north slope of Alaska. BP estimates that with current fields already in production the pipeline can run at full capacity for another 20 to 40 years. So they don't need any more land to continue to keep the pipeline viable.

The native issue is a very important one. If you look at the Gwich'in - the native American tribe that has lived near the refuge for 10 - 20,000 years - they depend on the caribou herd that goes to the refuge every year to give birth to their young for their subsistence lifestyle. They are vociferously opposed to drilling being carried out in the refuge and they are the ones who will be most affected by this.

Charli Coon:

But those that actually live where the drilling would take place are in favour of the production.

The issue is that it is a refuge but Congress did set aside 1.5 million acres for oil exploration and for natural gas. But what we are doing is focusing on ANWR as though ANWR is the only piece, the cornerstone of this energy policy but it is just one component. We have an energy crisis in the United States. The President is not saying we are going to just drill for oil or natural gas. We are looking at a diversity of fuel sources - we will have a mix of natural gas, oil, nuclear, coal-fired generators and we will also have renewable energy sources and we do have hydro power. So we are looking at a total picture here and not just focusing on drilling in ANWR.

Richard Lister:

Charli, if as you say, the drilling in ANWR would be just one small part of a much broader energy structure, is it really justifiable to drill in an area which is one of the last untouched pieces of wilderness? I take your point that there are some people living there but it is only around 260 people in the Kaktovik community who live in that area and having been up there I can see that there is really very little development around the village of Kaktovik. Can it really be justified to be drilling in an area so little touched when it is such a small part of a much broader energy spectrum?

Charli Coon:

Yes, because right now we are about 58% dependent upon foreign oil. So that can drive our foreign policy, they can manipulate the prices of oil - we need to reduce our dependency on foreign oil.

We are talking about a very small piece of land - we are talking about 2,000 acres. There would only be drilling in the winter time. For example, in Prudhoe Bay, you were referring to the caribou - the caribou with all of the development that has gone on there their numbers have trebled. So I see these alarmist tactics are not helpful to the discussion of an overall energy policy.

Richard Lister:

Athan Manuel, what about that point? If you go up to the Prudhoe Bay region in the calving period during the summer, it does look as though the caribou are all over the region. Can you really make a case that this is going to hurt the caribou population in another area of the northern coastal plain?

Athan Manuel:

We believe we can because when you compare Prudhoe Bay and the coastal plain of the Arctic refuge, it is really like comparing apples and oranges. With the issue of the calving grounds - where the caribou go to give birth to their young - the issue with the coastal plain of the Arctic refuge is that it is the most narrow portion of the coastal plain in Alaska. So if drilling would happen on the coastal plain there is no place for the caribou to move other than to go inland and enter the foothills of the Brooks Range. If they moved into the foothills of the Brooks Range they would expose themselves to more predators, especially wolves, black bears and golden eagles who prey on the young caribou. Also they would be more susceptible to mosquitoes - on the coast there are fewer mosquitoes.

What has happened for the caribou herd near Prudhoe Bay is that the coastal plain there is much wider so what the female caribou have done to give birth to their young is that they have moved further inland away from Prudhoe Bay's development but there are no mountains when they go further inland because the coastal plain is wider. So to compare the coastal plain of Prudhoe Bay and the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is like comparing apples and oranges because there is no other place for the caribou to go.

That is why in 1987 when the Department of the Interior studied the impact of oil drilling on the birthing of the caribou, they estimated that 40% of the caribou herd would be displaced or damaged from drilling on the coastal plain.

Furthermore the central Arctic herd you referred is only about 25,000 caribou. The Porcupine River caribou herd that gives birth to their young on the coastal plain of the refuge is six times that size - 130,000 - so not only would they have less of an area to move to, they are just a much bigger herd so that would compound the problems of space for them.

Ajay Patel, UK:

Instead of drilling for more oil, why not introduce higher taxation on fuel in the US?

Richard Lister:

That is a fair point, the US does, in relation to the rest of the world, have very low gas prices does it not?

Charli Coon:

That is correct but we also have very high taxes on gasoline as well. But that is not the issue - the issue is that we have an energy crisis and our demand is increasing and we do not have the supply to meet that demand. We are not talking about just oil. We are talking about a diversity of fuel so that we don't become just dependent upon one source.

Andy, UK:

Once the US have plundered this resource and ruined Alaska where will they go next?

Richard Lister:

There are consequences of drilling and Prudhoe Bay is not the Prudhoe Bay that it was before the oil companies went there. Isn't there a justification for that kind of fear about what could happen in the refuge?

Charli Coon:

If we were to start from scratch today in Prudhoe Bay with the technology that we have, the "footprint" - the impact on the area - would be about 64% less than it is now. So you have to remember that technology is playing a big role in the achievements that we can make in terms of drilling and having less of an environmental impact.

Richard Lister:

I was in the Arctic a couple of weeks ago and we saw some of the newer oil development platforms and certainly it was quite clear that the kind of facilities they have now are really much better - more efficient, more economical, they take less space than the kind of facilities that were put in place in the original Prudhoe Bay back in the 1970s. So is it fair to say that the oil companies would have less of an impact than they might have done say 30 years ago?

Athan Manuel:

That is true and we don't dispute that. They have improved and are making a smaller "footprint" but it is still a "footprint" and it is still a "footprint" on a pristine refuge that has been set aside to preserve wilderness. Also when they have used these improved technologies, you still see problems. For example, the Endicott oilfield that BP developed in 1995 where they said watch this development - this will be our new environmentally sensitive oilfield and then two years later they were found to have violated the Clean Water Act there by reinjecting hazardous waste back into the tundra.

So even in their clean places they still have accidents and that is just the nature of the business. We don't want to characterise them as just being these evil giants who go round stomping on eco-systems, but the very nature of the business is that spills and accidents happen and an area as pristine as the Arctic Refuge can't withstand that kind of damage and should be set aside as wilderness.

Richard Lister:

But isn't the economic reality of this country and the modern world generally that it does rely on oil and gas and you do have to keep looking for new sources until there is an alternative? Here we are in a situation where there is potentially a fairly substantial reserve in the northern coastal plain and it is very difficult to just ignore that for the sake of not drilling in what is at the moment a fairly flat and featureless stretch of tundra.

Athan Manuel:

The oil industry already has access to 95% of Alaska's north slope. We don't think it is an outrageous or unreasonable request that 5% of America's Arctic be preserved as wilderness.

If you are looking at what is economically recoverable from the coastal plain - the estimate that it is only 3.2 billion barrels of economic recoverable oil underneath the coastal plain and that is less than six months worth of oil for the United States.

Richard Lister:

There is a question here that says that haven't the United States really been taken in by a very clever environmental campaign which doesn't explore the issues as fully as it should with regard to this argument of there being less than six months of oil?

Athan Manuel:

No matter how you break down the 3.2 billion barrels of oil, that is not going to stop our energy problems, it is not going to make us energy independent and it is not going to bring the price of oil down. We favour an energy policy that points more towards conservation.

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