An Overview of Arctic Oil Drilling in Alaska

An Overview of Arctic Oil Drilling in Alaska

The dispute over Arctic drilling pits those who are in favor of extracting petroleum from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) against those who back the preservation of the ANWR, as mandated by the United States government decades ago. According to 2005 estimates, the reserves of the ANWR could provide the U.S. with enough oil to meet increased domestic needs for a single year.

Opponents of drilling in the Arctic include environmental organizations such as Greenpeace, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Congress of American Indians, which represents the Gwich'in Athabascan Indians. Opponents stress that the temporary fix provided by a limited supply of oil - currently estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) at about 7.6 billion barrels - would not justify the negative environmental and cultural impacts of this process. Unlike warm tropical environments, arctic environments are sensitive to disturbances and require tens to hundreds of years to recover. Instead, opponents push for increased research and development of renewable fuel sources, supporting better fuel efficiency standards and mandatory lifestyle changes that would decrease oil dependence.

Those in favor of Arctic drilling include the Alliance for Energy and Economic Growth, ExxonMobil and other petroleum companies, and the Alaskan government. Proponents of drilling justify the need for more domestic oil in light of instability in the Middle East, terrorism threats, and high gasoline prices. They estimate that drilling would generate tens of thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars in revenue, thereby benefiting the economy. Furthermore, proponents stress that new technologies and increased ecological sensitivity would limit the environmental impacts of drilling. Additionally, many pipelines can be hidden and can arguably create fewer long-term impacts than those created by increased residential and commercial development, unless negligence leads to the occurrence of oil spills.

The National Commission on Energy Policy predicts that the United States' need for energy will increase by 40 percent by 2025. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that worldwide oil production will peak before that time. Many Americans agree that something must be done now to solve future energy problems; however, 50 percent of Americans oppose drilling.

Significant Events and Terms Related to Arctic Oil Drilling

Arab Oil Embargo: In October 1973, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) announced it would not supply oil to the United States and other countries that supported Israel. The oil shortage caused long waits at gas stations and increased prices significantly through the end of the embargo in March 1974.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR): A 19.2 million acre region of northeastern Alaska that comprises 8 million acres of designated wilderness, the Brooks Mountain Range, three rivers designated wild and scenic, and a diverse coastal area. Approximately 8,900,000 acres were set aside as a natural preserve in 1960 to protect the area's fish and wildlife populations, as well as the cultures of the Inupiat Eskimo and Gwich'in Indians. In 1980, an additional 9,160,000 acres were also set aside under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The ANWR is managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Barrel: One barrel of oil holds 42 gallons of crude oil.

Coastal Plain (also known as the '1002 area'): Area comprising 1.5 million acres of the ANWR along the coastline of the Beaufort Sea, where oil drilling would take place. The village of Kaktovik is located on the coastal plain and is surrounded by 94,000 acres of land that belong to indigenous people.

Crude Oil: Liquid petroleum that is formed deep underground from a combination of heat and organic matter (mostly algae, plankton, and bacteria) over the course of millions of years. In addition to its use in the production of fuel for transportation and heating, oil is used to make plastics, pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals, and other materials.

Gwich'in Athabascan Indians: A group of indigenous people in Alaska and Canada, whose populations number about 7,000. Members who live in Arctic Village and Old Crow, located in the ANWR, are referred to as 'People of the Caribou' because of their reliance on the Porcupine caribou herd (named for the nearby Porcupine River) for sustenance.

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