Current State of Arctic Oil Drilling in the U.S.

Current State of Arctic Oil Drilling in the U.S.

The U.S. government has been debating Arctic drilling since the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay. In 2001, former President George W. Bush encouraged legislation to support drilling in his National Energy Policy. While the U.S. House of Representatives voted for such action, the U.S. Senate rejected all such bills. In opposition, Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-CT) co-sponsored the Udall-Eisenhower Arctic Wilderness Act to permanently protect the coastal plain of the ANWR. It was not passed by Congress.

Polls show that the majority of Americans value the preservation of wilderness, but are deeply concerned about the future of energy supplies and are divided over the issue of Arctic drilling. Public opinion regarding energy policy is tied to the war in Iraq, international terrorism, and fluctuations in the price of gas.

In 2005, the oil was estimated to be worth $374 billion, but would cost $123 billion to extract and sell. This could generate $37 and $124 billion for the Alaskan and Federal governments, respectively. However, the oil would not be available for 5 years and would then take several additional years to decades to meet peak output, which is estimated to occur in 2025. The oil would then dry up in approximately 65 years. Thus, drilling would have few effects on domestic oil prices, considering the amount of time it would take to obtain oil, coupled with the size of the oil field, which is equivalent to 0.55% of the global supply.

Though the technology used to access oil fields (e.g. slant-drilling) has improved, its impacts will likely be felt by the ecosystem. Initial seismic assessments will be carried out by driving vehicles over the land in a grid-like pattern, emitting sound waves and potentially disturbing wildlife and compacting the land.

The coastal plain is the most enticing area for oil companies, but proponents continue to encounter firm resistance from native Americans and environmentalists. This region is referred to as the "sacred place where life begins" by the Gwich'in Indians, who worry that development and drilling will interfere with or halt their lives as subsistence caribou hunters. Wildlife in this area is abundant and depends on the resources available in the coastal plain. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service predicts that drilling will have major effects on caribou in the region, displacing herds by more than 30 miles and decreasing calf survival by 8 percent. Subsequently, this disturbance will have significant effects on the entire food chain, including wolves, wolverines, polar bears, snow geese, birds, and fish.

Regardless of the outcome of the political debate, the ANWR is only capable of supplying the U.S. with oil for a year. In the long-term, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains that it would make more sense to protect this area, which has unparalleled arctic habitat and wildlife.

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