Posted: March 18th, 2023

Arguments against Drilling for Oil in Alaska

drilling for oil in Alaska to protect the natural wildlife

Arguments against Drilling for Oil in Alaska

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As energy costs continue to increase, the demand for domestic sources of oil has become more pronounced than ever. Indeed, the burgeoning powerhouses of China and India are placing an enormous strain on the world’s oil supplies, and many Americans are facing some harsh realities at the gas pump today. In this environment, developing and exploiting the country’s domestic natural resources appears to just make good sense, and the enormous resources available in Alaska in particular appear to represent a short-term solution to this growing demand for oil and gas today. Nevertheless, while oil and gas are fungible products that have known alternatives, the unique qualities of the environmentally fragile Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska are not, and such exploitation today to solve a long-term problem are misguided and pose a significant threat to the viability of this vast region for generations of Americans to come. To determine what both sides have to say about this issue, this paper provides a review of the peer-reviewed and scholarly literature concerning further exploitation of Alaska’s oil and gas reserves and its concomitant environmental impact, followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

The long gas lines of the 1980s were just a fading memory when the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 took place. In response to these attacks and based on a growing perception among Americans that the country’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil was contributing to the nation’s problems, there has been a groundswell of support for developing domestic sources of oil. As a result, many observers are pointing to the known oil reserves and potential reserves available in the state of Alaska as a solution to this energy crisis. According to Herndon, “In the far northeastern corner of Alaska remains the last great wilderness in the United States. Calling this area the last great wilderness is a statement not made lightly; people have been calling it that for almost 50 years. The name of the place is so often mentioned that even the most ardent sociophobe has probably heard of it: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge” (72).

In his aptly entitled essay, “Like Wilderness, but Need Oil? Securing America’s Future Energy Act Puts Little between Accident-Prone Oil Companies and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” Stanke (2002) reports that the U.S. Senate narrowly rejected a bill known as “Securing America’s Future Energy,” or SAFE, that would have lifted the oil drilling ban on an ecologically critical section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in May 2002; nevertheless, there remains a fundamental desire on the part of many Americans to become more energy self-sufficient and the abundant oil reserves available in the ANWR suggest that this type of legislation is not a matter of if, but of when. For example, Hertsgaard (2003) reports that, “Even as environmental groups fundraise and Democratic senators threaten to filibuster over Alaska, the [current Bush] Administration has pursued a less-noticed but equally destructive aspect of its energy plan: encouraging drilling and mining of millions of acres of public land in the West, including national monument areas. Court rulings have blocked much of the Administration’s efforts — so far” (15).

Indeed, in the wake of September 11 and rising energy prices, the call is being made to use the nation’s own resources to their best advantage. According to Dunn (2001), “The most controversial element of the new Bush strategy involves the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling and development. Dubbed ‘the Serengeti of Alaska’ by biologists, the refuge is North America’s most diverse, intact, naturally functioning community of arctic and subarctic ecosystems” (emphasis added) (2). Likewise, Stanke notes that, “Questions of national security were bandied about in reference to the ANWR oil issue at the time of SAFE’s passage [by the U.S. House of Representatives] before September 11, 2001. Such concerns took on increased urgency following the terrorist attacks, which seem to have been motivated partly by the oil-guarding U.S. military presence in the Middle East” (905).

The U.S. Congress established the ANWR in 1980 to prevent further development of the oil and gas reserves on approximately 8 million acres by declaring this region a wilderness; an additional 9.5 million acres was placed off-limits to exploitation by declaring them a wildlife refuge (16 U.S.C., Section 3101). In this regard, Grover (1998) notes that, “The Refuge, as ANWR is sometimes called, currently enjoys the relative protection of federal law. Since 1957, the United States Department of the Interior has exercised primary administrative authority over most of the land comprising modern-day ANWR. This fact has meant a great deal to people who care about the Refuge” (1169).

When this law was passed, the Congress decided to wait to determine if the 1.55 million acres of ANWR’s coastal plain should also be designated a wilderness pending the outcome of additional research concerning the environmental impact of oil drilling on the Alaskan Northern Slope (Stanke 905). According to Herndon, “Most of the original Arctic National Wildlife Range was subsequently designated wilderness, but under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), part of it was placed in a sort of legal limbo, to further study its oil and gas potential” (72). In this regard, Stanke points out that, “Congress included section 1002 of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which requires the Interior Secretary to thoroughly research the environmental ramifications of developing the ANWR Coastal Plain, to help Congress decide whether to permit oil and gas leasing” (Stanke 905).

The ANWR Coastal Plain is commonly known as the so-called “1002 Area,” based on section 1002 of the legislation that became the ANILCA; the research that is being conducted as a result of section 1002 is supposed to determine whether the plain will remain off-limits to future development as a federally protected wilderness or it will be transformed into an industrial oil development and production complex (Stanke 905). Section 1002 of the ANILCA is the result of a heated debate on both sides concerning whether to allow such exploitation or to protect the unique qualities of this region. As noted above, there are powerful arguments on both sides of the issue: “Both sides of this controversy have strong arguments because the 1002 Area possesses both tremendous ecological significance and potential as an important source of oil and natural gas” (emphasis added) (Stanke 906).

The existing protections that are in place are no accident, though. The legislation that set aside the wilderness and refuge areas of Alaska are the deliberate result of the U.S. government’s decision to keep oil and gas development out of the ANWR specifically to preserve the region’s wilderness. According to Stanke, “In 1960, Fred Seaton, as Interior Secretary for the Eisenhower administration, designated 8.9 million acres in the northeastern corner of Alaska the Arctic National Wildlife Range — a sanctuary for wildlife and wilderness conservation” (Stanke 905). As Grover points out, Interior Secretary Seaton’s 1960 withdrawal order clearly stated the purposes for which the new wildlife range was to be managed: preserving the ‘unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values’ of the region” (1169). During the period 1960 and 1979, the U.S. Department of the Interior managed the Range in a fashion that was congruent with the intent of this statement in spite of the vast natural resources discovered near Prudhoe Bay (Grover 1169). According to Weaver and Asmus (2006), the Prudhoe Bay oil field is the largest oil field in the United States. Not surprisingly, these resources have attracted a great deal of attention from commercial interests, but Stanke notes that the fact that the Refuge exists at all is not a matter of chance or luck, but rather is the.”.. deliberate result of United States wilderness-preservation policy in place since the 1950s” (Stanke 906).

The exploitation of Alaska’s oil and gas reserves has also had a profound impact on the native peoples of the state. According to Dombroski (2001), while the oil and gas industry have introduced new employment opportunities to the state over the past several decades, there has been a fundamental trade-off in native culture and the manner in which these people use the other resources in Alaska. Subsistence fishing, for example, has been replaced by commercial applications that harvest enormous quantities of salmon, but discard much of the catch because it is not commercially useful. Moreover, if the ANWR is opened to commercial oil and gas exploitation, the environmental consequences are expected to be severe. In this regard, Weaver and Asmus report that, “Competitive drilling can result in unnecessary wells being drilled and unnecessary surface infrastructure being installed to prevent drainage between licensees. The ‘economic waste’ of higher costs can ultimately lead to the physical waste of oil or gas as the field is abandoned sooner because it is not commercially profitable in its later stages” (3). Likewise, advocates of further development of Alaska’s oil and gas reserves maintain that such exploitation can be done in environmentally responsible manner; however; in spite of significant improvements in oil exploration and development technologies in recent years, significant ecological consequences are anticipated (Dunn 2). In this regard, Dunn notes that, “These include soil and water contamination from spills; alteration of vegetation and drainage from roads; and the disturbance of subsistence hunting opportunities for muskoxen, polar bears, caribou, and other wildlife. Nor do these new technologies mitigate the atmospheric effects of local haze, acid rain, and global warming” (2). Critics of further exploitation of the Refuge and wilderness maintain that viable alternatives to these resources already exist, and more fuel-efficient vehicles would eliminate the need for additional development of Alaska’s pristine environment altogether (Dunn 2).

Proponents suggest that the critics are misplaced in their assumptions about further exploitation, though. According to Lieberman (2005), the ANWR is ripe for plundering and is unworthy of further federal protections: “There are plenty of truly pristine places in Alaska worth preserving, but ANWR’s coastal plain isn’t one of them. As it is, Alaska has 141 million acres of protected lands, an area equal to the size of California and New York combined” (16). Likewise, Arnold (2001) suggests that there are a number of compelling reasons to permit further exploitation of Alaska’s oil and gas reserves, including the following:

Only a tiny portion of the refuge would be explored. About 1.5 million acres (8% of the refuge) on part of its northern coast is being targeted. The 17.5 million-acre remainder will still be permanently off-limits to all development. If oil is discovered, as it is virtually certain to be, less than 2,000 acres of the 1.5 million would be built upon.

U.S. coffers would swell. Federal income would increase by billions of dollars from taxes, lease rentals, bonus bids, and royalties. Bonus bids alone were worth $2.6 billion in 1995.

New jobs. Estimates are that between 250,000 and 735,000 jobs will be created by developing the ANWR’s coastal strip.

Economic stimulus. Oil development on Alaska’s North Slope contributed over $50 billion to the nation’s economy between 1980 and 1994, directly helping all 50 states.

Great chance for a bonanza. The coastal sliver on the ANWR’s north coast is America’s best possibility for another huge “Prudhoe Bay– size” oil and gas find. U.S. Department of the Interior estimates range from 4 to 16 billion barrels of recoverable oil.

North Slope production falling. The North Slope oil fields today give the United States almost 25% of its domestic production. But the yield has dwindled from 2 million barrels a day in 1980 to a current level of 1 million a day.

Imported oil too pricey. America buys about 56% of the petroleum it uses from abroad. The cost is more than $55 billion a year, which represents a big portion of the annual trade deficit.

Wildlife-friendly drilling. Oil and gas development has been shown not to hurt local animal and plant populations. For example, during the last 20 years of oil operations, the central arctic caribou herd at Prudhoe Bay has swelled from 3,000 animals to 18,100.

Small-footprint” technology. Big technological advances have caused oil development to shrink. For example, if Prudhoe Bay were built today, it would occupy 1,526 acres, which is 64% smaller than it currently is.

Public support. More than three-quarters of Alaskans back exploration and production in the refuge (Arnold 56).

Despite these assertions, critics suggest that there are numerous animal species in this region of Alaska that would be adversely affected by further development. For instance, according to Gildart (1997), studies in the peer-reviewed scientific literature indicate that further development on the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain would not only represent a threat to caribou and other species that native Alaskans depend on for sustenance, it would “cause major, irreversible changes in the Porcupine herd. Such work could include construction of oil rigs, gravel pads and gravel roads — as well as operation by hundreds of workers — in the calving grounds” (20). Likewise, Hoar (2005) emphasizes that, “Alaska’s wilderness is a place of frozen tundra, calving caribou, wolves, polar bears, millions of migrating birds and stunning natural beauty. But that has not prevented the U.S. Senate from preparing to open it up for oil and gas exploration that environmentalists warn will have disastrous results” (42). Furthermore, beyond the enormous environmental consequences that would likely result from such unrestricted exploitation of Alaska’s oil and gas reserves, this approach is not a long-term solution to the country’s growing dependence on foreign oil. As Meadows (2003) points out, “In reality, more drilling on public lands in the Rocky Mountain West and opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (the Arctic Refuge) in Alaska would come at a high environmental and financial cost and do little to answer our country’s long-term energy challenges” (47).


The research showed that the ongoing efforts by the current Bush administration to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Range to further development of its known and expected oil and gas reserves have been supported by proponents that claim such development will have a minimal impact on the environment and will go a long way toward helping the United States become more energy self-reliant. While this is a laudable goal, the answer is not Alaska but alternative energy sources and more fuel-efficient vehicles, initiatives that have been stalled by automobile manufacturers and politicians for the past several decades. “Seward’s Folly” might appear ripe for the picking to these observers, but the research also showed that the Arctic National Wildlife Range is a one-of-a-kind region of the country and is not an energy piggybank that can be exploited at the whims of politicians and industrialists even though they can hardly wait to get their hands on it. If they do succeed, future generations of Americans will likely regard this initiative as a completely new “folly,” and will regret the decision since this environmental impact will be irreversible and new technologies will likely make such exploitation unnecessary. In the final analysis, the U.S. Congress set aside the Arctic National Wildlife Range for good reasons and those reasons are still just as valid today.

Works Cited

Arnold, Andrew. (2001, September). “Oil: America’s Expensive Lifeblood – New Oil from Alaska?” World and I 16(9): 56.

Dombrowski, Kirk. Against Culture: Development, Politics, and Religion in Indian Alaska. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.

Dunn, Seth. (2001, May). “Why Oil and Wildlife Don’t Mix.” World Watch 14(3): 2.

Gildart, Ben. (1997, October-November). “Hunting for Their Future: Alaska’s Gwich’in Indians Fear That Proposed Oil Drilling on Caribou Calving Grounds Could End Their Ancient Culture.” National Wildlife 35(6): 20.

Grover, Todd. (1998). “Arctic Equity? The Supreme Court’s Resolution of United States V. Alaska.” Environmental Law 28(4): 1169.

Herndon, Mark. (2002). “The Last Frontier: The Last True Wilderness Is Increasingly at Risk in the Current Political Climate, with Calls for Less Dependency on Foreign Oil Focusing Attention on the Alaskan Preserves. Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy 16(4): 72.

Hertsgaard, Mark. (2003, February 3). “Trashing the Environment: Kyoto Was Just a Start for Bush From Opening the Arctic to Oil Drilling to Allowing Snowmobiles in Yellowstone, This Administration Never Saw a Regulation it Didn’t Want to Get Rid of.” The Nation 276(4): 15.

Hoar, William P. (2005, April 18). “Setback for Energy Foes.” The New American 21(8): 42.

Lieberman, Ben. (2005, December 20). “Alaska Oil Drilling Myths.” The Washington Times: 16.

Meadows, William H. (2003, September 30). “Q: Should Congress Allow More Drilling for Gas Deposits on Federal Lands? No More Drilling on Public Lands Would Do Little to Answer Long-Term Energy Challenges.” Insight on the News: 47.

National Wilderness System Preservation Act of 1964, Pub. L. No. 88-577, Section 2, 78 Stat. 890-96 (codified at 16 U.S.C. [section] 1131-36 (2000)) cited in Stanke at 906.

Stanke, Samuel. (2002). “Like Wilderness, but Need Oil? Securing America’s Future Energy Act Puts Little between Accident-Prone Oil Companies and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” Environmental Law 32(4): 905-8.

Weaver, Jacqueline Lang and David F. Asmus. (2006). “Unitizing Oil and Gas Fields around the World: A Comparative Analysis of National, Laws and Private Contracts.” Houston Journal of International Law 28(1): 3.

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