Directional drilling not a solution for Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Wilderness Society’s Lois Epstein visited Capitol Hill this week to testify before a Senate panel on oil drilling technologies.

While the hearing was mostly focused on new ways to produce 3-D maps of oil and gas reserves and advances in directional drilling, there was also discussion of the impacts that new and improving drilling technologies can have on wild landscapes, like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Epstein’s testimony focused on problems associated with poorly-regulated onshore and offshore infrastructure, options to keep the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System viable without drilling federal lands and waters, and describing how directional and conventional oil drilling have similar impacts on ecosystems.

“Oil drilling has a troubling history of spills and pollution,” said Epstein.  “Even the best-financed operators cannot ensure that they will not have leaks or major spills.  Directional drilling will not change that.”

Epstein gave a realistic assessment of the impacts that directional drilling, and associated exploration activities, would have on ecologically-important areas, including seismic testing - which uses soundwaves from detonating small explosives to detect underground rock formations – and must be done over top of the reservoir.

“Seismic exploration done prior to directional drilling for oil production can leave impacts on Arctic landscapes for decades,” said Epstein.  “The bottom line with directional drilling is that it allows a region to become industrialized and adversely impacted to essentially the same extent as conventional drilling.”

In terms of how directional drilling could affect places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Epstein pointed to the damage that heavy equipment used in seismic testing can leave for decades on unspoiled tundra.  Additionally, while the production well can be directionally drilled, many exploratory wells must be drilled directly downward, thus compromising the land and disrupting nearby wildlife.

A proposal to allow directional drilling underneath the extremely sensitive Arctic National Wildlife was met with concern from The Wilderness Society’s President William H. Meadows.

“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is far too sensitive a landscape to open to oil drilling – even directional drilling.  The refuge’s wilderness and wildlife values are a global treasure.  The refuge was established fifty years ago to conserve fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity.”

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