Proponents of oil development in Alaska have been making promises, and breaking them, for decades. More than thirty years of industrial activity in Alaska have demonstrated that oil production is inherently a dirty business. Despite the industry’s best intentions to minimize impacts, environmental and social effects are accumulating and resulting in lasting harm to ecosystems and indigenous cultures. This report calls attention to the many gaps between promise and reality, casting doubt on the reassurances being made by drilling proponents and their allies.
Oil companies and politicians insist that it is possible to explore and develop oil fields in Alaska without harm to wildlife and the environment. But oil development is inherently a dirty business. At every stage from exploration to production to transportation, oil development negatively impacts the environment. Impacts occur both in the present and at the source, as in the case of oil spills, as well as in the future and distant from the source, as when oil is shipped overseas, burned, and converted to greenhouse gases.
For years, proponents of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have argued that the development “footprint” will impact only 2,000 acres. According to Sarah Palin, “this is like laying a 2-by-3-foot welcome mat on a basketball court.”1 In fact, oil development impacts are not limited to the area where drill pads and pipeline support beams touch the ground.
Directional drilling is not new and requires the same infrastructure with the same impacts as all oil development, including surface impacts. Proponents of oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other sensitive areas of Alaska assert that new advances in directional drilling will reduce, and even eliminate, environmental impacts. In fact, directional drilling has limitations, and its impacts are no different than those of conventional drilling.
A common misperception about oil development on Alaska’s North Slope is that it takes place only in winter and therefore has no impact on wildlife. Ice roads are cited as an example of how oil companies conduct business without damaging the fragile Arctic tundra. These claims not only overlook the fact that oil production requires permanent installations that operate year-round, but they also ignore the full scope of impacts that the oil industry has on wildlife and the environment, even in winter.
Each year, an average of 450 oil and other toxic spills occur on Alaska’s North Slope as a result of oil and gas activity. More than 45 different toxic substances, including acids classified as extremely hazardous substances, have been spilled during routine operations. Between 1996 and 2008, 5,895 spills occurred totaling more than 2.7 million gallons of toxic substances, more than 396,000 gallons of crude oil, 122,000 gallons of drilling muds, and more than 1 million gallons of process water.
More than 2,500 chemicals are used by the oil and gas industry.1 These chemicals in liquid and gas form, together with dust and particulate matter, pollute the environment and can be harmful to people. Noise is also a significant source of oil industry pollution with impacts to wildlife and people. Although laws are in place to regulate hazardous substances found in oil and used in its production, these laws are often violated and the opportunities for accidents, spills and leaks are significant.
Furthermore, the oil industry is exempt from many regulations and is not required to report all information about pollution and toxic waste management, making it difficult to document all the sources and full extent of pollutants.
Industry and government officials make promises time and again to hold oil development activities to the “strictest environmental standards,”1 and assure the American people that proposed new development will only move forward in the most environmentally safe and responsible manner possible.2 But state and federal agencies have actually weakened rules and given exemptions for oil development activities in Alaska.
Decades of research supports the conclusion that oil and gas development in Arctic Alaska has negative impacts on wildlife and habitat. As early as 1987, the Department of Interior studied potential impacts of oil development on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Arctic Refuge) and concluded there would be major impacts to the Porcupine Caribou Herd, muskox, water quality and quantity. These conclusions were reiterated in a 1995 science review conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.2 In 2002, U.S Geological Survey biologists released a report based on 12 years of studies that further substantiated the potential impacts of oil development in the Arctic Refuge on the Porcupine Caribou Herd, and other animals. A year later, the National Academy of Sciences released a major study looking beyond the Arctic Refuge and documenting cumulative impacts of oil development on wildlife across an extensive area of Alaska’s North Slope, including offshore areas.
Alaska Native people have sustained for generations a relationship with the land, water, and wildlife that permeates every aspect of their lives from basic survival, to social norms, to spiritual beliefs. Industrial scale development on Alaska’s North Slope has affected this subsistence way of life and contributed to social and health problems. Although oil revenues have helped fund schools and medical clinics, adverse human impacts are accumulating and could further accrue as development threatens to move into the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, and Bristol Bay.
Oil development interests insist that because “fossil fuels will continue to provide the majority of the world’s growing need for energy for decades to come,” the continued development of new oil and gas resources is critical. In fact, the continued expansion of oil and gas development, especially in environmentally sensitive places such as the Arctic Ocean, will only add to the threats Arctic ecosystems and cultures are facing and distract from the urgent need to address climate change.