Monday, March 02, 2009

The Debate Over ANWR Drilling Begins Anew

Feb 27: U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), introduced legislation that would allow the use of "advanced directional drilling to tap the vast energy potential" of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) coastal plain without disturbing the unique characteristics of the area. The bill, which is co-sponsored by Senator Mark Begich (D-AK), would allow access to the coastal plain’s oil and natural gas resources through the use of underground directional drilling from state-owned lands to the west of the refuge and state waters from the north.

Murkowski said, “Everybody wins with this bill -- America improves its energy security and the conservation community is ensured that there will be no visible impact on the refuge. I urge those previously opposed to oil and gas exploration in ANWR to take a fresh look at this issue and show a willingness to compromise.” Murkowski indicated in a release that the legislation seeks to find a compromise with those groups concerned with preserving the 1.5 million acre coastal plain while recognizing the need to improve our energy security and economy by meeting more of our energy needs with domestic production.

Begich said, “Directional drilling provides a great opportunity to tap the Arctic refuge’s vast oil and gas potential with minimal disruption to the wild lands and the wildlife which depend on them. have been a long-time supporter of this cutting-edge technology and am hopeful this measure will help lead to an informed discussion about how to address America’s energy needs and how Alaska can help meet them. Developing the enormous energy resources on Alaska’s North Slope should be part of a comprehensive national energy policy which also includes renewable energy and conservation.” Begich added that he appreciates Murkowski’s leadership on this issue as she steers the legislation with her ranking position on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The two Senators indicated that directional drilling would allow energy companies to reach oil deposits up to eight miles away with no surface occupancy in the refuge. Production platforms on state lands and waters would be far away from the calving areas most used by the Porcupine caribou herd that visits the coastal plain in summer. The bill is based on the successful compromise reached in the Wyoming Range Legacy Act of 2007, which permitted resources to be accessed underground through directional drilling in a new wilderness area as long as there was no permanent surface impacts.

Revenue raised from development of ANWR would be distributed evenly between the state and federal treasuries. The bill also includes $15 million of mitigation impact aid to North Slope residents. A portion of the federal proceeds would also be dedicated to renewable energy, energy efficiency and wildlife habitat and mitigation programs nationwide. Development of the coastal plain could create as many as 700,000 new high-paying jobs and provide badly needed revenue ­-- as much as $112 billion in royalties, lease payments and corporate taxes -- for the nation’s new energy priorities.

Wilderness groups called the bill a "distraction." Eleanor Huffines, Alaska Director for The Wilderness Society said, “We are disappointed because we would rather work with Sens. Murkowski and Begich on a comprehensive Arctic climate and energy plan." Kristen Miller, Government Affairs Director at Alaska Wilderness League said, “This bill is nothing more than an attempt to distract us from the real issue -- the out of control leasing and development that’s been going on for the past eight years in America’s Arctic. The region is already under immense stress from the impacts of climate change and there are now close to 100 million acres open for oil and gas development. For eight years, the Bush administration paid no heed to huge gaps in science and potential impacts to this fragile, unique ecosystem. Yet, instead of addressing these important issues, Sens. Murkowski and Begich introduce a dead-on-arrival piece of legislation that aims to keep Congress stuck in the same stale debate.”

The groups argued that oil and gas development requires roads, air strips, gravel mines, pipelines and seismic surveys. And despite industry’s claims, oil companies in Alaska have never drilled a horizontal distance for a production well over three miles and rarely over one mile. Miller said, “Sen. Murkowski isn’t clear where she gets her facts supporting this bill. For example she provides no reference for her claim that 700,000 jobs would be created. This may have come from a long discredited study funded and released by the American Petroleum Institute. It’s undisputed that investment today in renewable and alternative energy will result in a huge number of long-term sustainable jobs.”

The groups said the Arctic Refuge is one of the last true wilderness areas left in the United States. It contains valuable habitat for 250 species of wildlife -- including caribou, polar bears, grizzly bears and migrating birds. The wildlife is a central food source for the people of the Gwich’in Nation. The Porcupine Caribou Herd has sustained the Gwich’in for over 20,000 years. The herd is dependant on the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge for the calving and nursery for their offspring. Protecting the calving and nursery grounds is a human rights issue for the Gwich’in people.

Access a release from Senator Lisa Murkowski (
click here). Access a release from The Wilderness Society (click here). Access a Memo to Environmental and Political Reporters & Editors from the Wilderness Society (click here). Access legislative details for S. 503 (click here). [*Energy, *Land]

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