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Sen. Murkowski has it wrong; drilling in ANWR would be a tragedy

  • Author: Lois Epstein
    | Opinion
  • Updated: January 6, 2018
  • Published January 6, 2018

In this era of "alternative facts," Alaskans are well-advised to take a critical look at Sen. Lisa Murkowski's claims in her Dec. 20 op-ed that oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would be good for our state. The truth is that the economic case for oil production is highly suspect, the environmental damage would be significant, and there is notable opposition from the closest communities.

With vast amounts of cheaper oil produced across the nation, there is little likelihood of high bids for lease tracts, and very little chance of oil production in the Arctic Refuge during the foreseeable future. Oil production from shale formations in the Lower 48 makes Alaska oil production not as competitive as it once was.

"Our sense is that there is little to no current interest in the industry to invest in ANWR," said Pavel Molchanov, a Raymond James energy analyst, in recent weeks. "This is high-risk 'frontier exploration' with a very distant roadmap to cash flow."

If oil development does proceed, Sen. Murkowski's claim of a small industrial footprint on the Arctic Refuge's sensitive coastal plain – the biological heart of the refuge –  is false because she does not include roads, pipelines, loss of caribou habitat nor reduced access to subsistence resources in her figures. In truth, her plan could turn the entire coastal plain into a spider web of oil infrastructure.

Caribou of the Porcupine herd in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Asher Levin via The Wilderness Society)

Sprawling oil infrastructure is not the only problem, however. Oil production means ongoing air pollution, water pollution from spills and industrial noise that will frighten or divert the wildlife that make the refuge's coastal plain so special. Any additional energy that must be expended by wildlife to avoid infrastructure and move to less-desirable habitat will decrease survivability. And because the coastal plain is a narrow strip of land unlike the broader coastal plain to the west, there are few desirable places nearby for coastal plain caribou and other wildlife to go.

Birds fly to the coastal plain from five continents to nest and raise young, and the Porcupine caribou herd travels hundreds of miles of extremely challenging mountainous terrain to arrive at the coastal plain to calve and forage because of the area's high-quality habitat. With sea ice diminishing due to a warming climate, increasing numbers of polar bears are denning in the coastal plain. We can't replace this real estate.

Regarding local support, Sen. Murkowski claims in her opinion piece that she "took the concerns of local residents to heart" after visiting Kaktovik, but she fails to mention that many residents of Kaktovik recently signed a petition opposing refuge drilling. See, also, Kaktovik resident Robert Thompson's Dec. 13 op-ed.

Additionally, Sen. Murkowski has shown little concern for the Gwich'in people living in the region who overwhelmingly oppose oil drilling and have fought to defend the refuge for decades. Their survival and way of life depend on the Porcupine caribou herd, which uses the coastal plain as a vital calving ground.

In contrast to the U.S., Canada has addressed the needs of the Gwich'in people (who also live in Canada) by preventing industrial development in the region adjacent to the Arctic Refuge. This region also is used by the Porcupine caribou herd.

We stand on the brink of destroying the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain. All Americans — including Alaskans — should lament the passage of one of the worst environmental votes in the history of Congress, a vote buried in the recent tax bill passed by Congress. History will not look kindly at Alaska's legislators and others who support damaging one of Alaska's greatest ecological treasures.

Lois Epstein is an Alaska-licensed engineer and arctic program director for The Wilderness Society.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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