An estimated 440 MT of CO2e would be produced by expanded U.S. drilling in the Arctic, according to the Obama Administration's 2017-2022 program for offshore oil leasing.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates there are 5 billion to 16 billion barrels of recoverable oil in the coastal plain. But those estimates were based on tests that relied on technology that is now out of date, so additional seismic testing may be needed to get a better picture of what lies underground. For drilling advocates, opening up ANWR is also a step towards opening the Chukchi Sea, which contains an estimated 15.38 billion barrels of recoverable oil, and the Beaufort Sea, which contains an estimated 8.22 billion barrels of oil.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is a 19.6-million-acre section of northeastern Alaska that is considered one of the most pristine areas in the U.S. In December 2017 a drilling ban that had been in place since 1980 was rescinded by the Trump Administration and Republican-controlled Congress.
Despite ANWR drilling being a Republican talking point since the early 2000s, the number of companies seriously interested in drilling there may be limited. Chevron and BP drilled an exploratory well in ANWR in the 1980s but the results of this are not known. And despite promises of expedited review of permits, only one company responded to the Dept. of the Interior's 2018 call for bids to do seismic testing.
Potential ESG Risks
The Trump Administration is pursuing ANWR drilling at an accelerated pace that violates long-established norms for issuing permits to drill in other areas. While the December 2017 legislation that rescinded the drilling ban called for drilling by 2024, the Dept. of the Interior announced in July 2018 that it was fast-tracking the permitting process to allow for a lease sale by 2019, a process that usually takes two to three years.
Normally an agency doing an environmental-impact statement would have the option of recommending no action, but that is not an option under the legislation. The Interior Department has also set a length limit of 150 pages on the environmental-impact statement to be written by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), although the agency is supposed to respond to all comments. Lois Epstein, Arctic program director for the Wilderness Society, said that would be difficult given that her group alone submitted a 150-page comment letter to the department.
As of June 2018 the first application filed to do seismic testing in ANWR failed to provide studies about the effects of the seismic work and equipment on wildlife, the tundra and the aquatic conditions in the refuge. After reviewing the permit application, Peter Nelson, director of federal lands at the advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife, said: “One thing is pretty notable: how many inaccuracies and missing pieces of information there are. It really provides more evidence that industry and the Trump administration are being pretty reckless with this process.”
Drilling in ANWR threatens the culture and livelihood of the area's native population. For example, Alaska’s coastal plain is the primary breeding ground for the largest caribou herd in the Arctic Refuge. The Porcupine Caribou herd is a staple for the indigenous Gwich’in people, whose way of life would be irreparably changed if oil and gas interests are able to open the area to development.
The coastal plain where drilling would occur is considered the “biological heart” of the Arctic Refuge. The infrastructure, rigs, pipelines, roads, and machinery required in industrial-scale drilling operations would put the 37 species of land mammals, eight marine mammals, 42 fish species, and more than 200 migratory bird species within the Refuge at extreme risk of habitat destruction. In a not-so-subtle irony, the pipeline itself is increasingly affected by climate disruption. The permafrost that underlays much of the pipeline is thawing thanks to soaring temperatures. The success of the pipeline in facilitating the combustion of carbon-dense energy is undermining its very foundations.
ANWR drilling is opposed by the state's native population and environmentalists. The state's most powerful federal official, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, has long advocated for drilling in ANWR but is also the rare Republican who acknowledges the negative impacts of climate change on her constituents.
Status of Project
Drilling in ANWR is also seen as a way of utilizing and keeping the Trans-Alaska Pipeline open, which is transporting just 500,000 bpd, down from a peak of 2 million bpd in 1988. According the conservative Institute for Energy Research: "If oil production continues to decline, the Alaska Pipeline will become uneconomic. Without another way to transport the oil, Alaska would be forced to effectively cease any oil production."
Domestic Political Situation
While many of the Trump Administration's environmental policies have been achieved by executive order and could be reversed by a new administration, ANWR drilling was opened up as part of the 2017 Republican tax bill and, as such, a ban could only be brought back by legislation. U.S. environmental groups face unprecedented challenges as they fight further rollbacks of decades-old laws and regulations under Trump; perversely, this has created a climate in which ANWR drilling is no longer getting as much attention or generating as much opposition as in the past.
American fossil fuel companies receive an estimated $20 billion in subsidies each year. In June 2018 the Interior Dept. announced $4 million in spending to build infrastructure that would help accelerate the study and leasing of drilling sites.
The Congressional Budget Office's estimate of $1.1 billion in ANWR tax revenue over ten years was used to help justify tax breaks for the wealthy in the December 2017 tax bill. The Center for American Progress estimates that drilling would only generate $37.5 million over ten years.
In May 2018 investors representing $2.5 trillion called on banks and oil and gas companies to opt out of drilling in ANWR.
Articles and resources
- The Climate Change Costs of Offshore Oil Drilling, Greenpeace, Jun. 9, 2016
- Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, USA Today, Apr. 19, 2018
- ANWR Fact Sheet: Pipeline Starved, Potential Untapped, Institute for Energy Research, Jan. 29, 2015
- Drilling in Arctic Refuge Gets a Green Light. What’s Next?, New York Times, Dec. 20, 2017
- Bolstered by Trump, Big Oil Resumes Its 40-Year Quest to Drill in an Arctic Wildlife Refuge, Fortune, Sep. 15, 2017
- Companies take first steps to drill for oil in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Washington Post, Jun. 1, 2018
- Drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to get fast review, Washington Post, Jul. 19, 2018
- Arctic National Wildlife Refuge 101, Center for American Progress, Oct. 10, 2017
- How the Alaska Pipeline Is Fueling the Push to Drill in the Arctic Refuge, e360, Nov. 16, 2017
- http://www.valdezstar.net/story/2018/06/13/main-news/anwr-drilling-will-benefit-from-us-fish-and-wildlife-refuge-construction/1938.html ANWR drilling will benefit from U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuge construction], Valdez Star, Jun. 13, 2018
- Drilling in the Arctic refuge to give tax cuts to the rich is dangerously stupid, Los Angeles Times, Dec. 29, 2017
- More than 100 organizations call on oil and gas industries, banks to opt out of Arctic drilling, Think Progress, May 14, 2018