By Alex Perkins
The American energy boom faces a new threat. On January 25, 2015, President Obama announced that he will use his executive authority to designate 12.3 million acres of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as a “Wilderness Area.” This designation mandates the highest level of federal protection for public lands. Drilling for oil, permanent structures and even roads are prohibited in wilderness areas.
Congress legally designated 2,000 of the 19.5 million acres of ANWR – only .001 percent of the vast refuge – for future oil and gas exploration in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. Not surprisingly, this most recent proposed measure will, and should, face stiff resistance from Congress.
Ignoring the Congressional designation, the White House has made it clear that the next target in its battle against fossil fuels is Alaska by shutting down ANWR. Unless Alaskans act to defend the legal ownership of their resources, the viability of their economy will be put at risk.
Over the last decade, oil and gas production in the U.S. has been growing at a staggering rate. During the same time, however, production on federally owned lands continues to slow. Unfortunately for Alaskans, much of the state’s remaining oil and gas reserves are located on federal lands such as ANWR.
An estimated one-third of Alaskan jobs are oil-related, and the oil industry accounts for roughly 85 percent of state revenue.
Part of the 1980 Conservation Act contained a sunset provision providing for the closure and dismantlement of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) if production ever ceases in the designated area. Closing ANWR to future energy development not only means losing thousands of future jobs and millions of dollars in state revenue, but may also lead to the dismemberment of the cornerstone of Alaska’s oil industry.
TAPS is currently operating at roughly 22.7 percent of its potential capacity due to the declining output of Alaska’s existing oil fields. Coupled with the drop in oil prices, the pipeline is becoming economically unviable. The threat of outright closure becomes an uncomfortable and unfortunate probability.
If Alaskan industry’s sole source for transporting oil to the lower 48 states is lost, one of the world’s greatest repositories of hydrocarbons will be needlessly foreclosed.
The choice is not between drilling on ANWR and preventing the loss of irreplaceable ecology. The White House and many environmentalists ignore the technological advancements that allow for energy production to occur safely and with minimal impact to the environment. Originally, opponents to oil production in ANWR claimed that activity would destroy the caribou population. Decades later, multiple studies show thriving caribou numbers in areas adjacent to ANWR with active oil development. Furthermore, innovations such as directional drilling would allow companies to tap the reserves in ANWR with minimal surface impact and aesthetic obstruction.
In a world still heavily dependent on fossil fuel consumption, oil and gas production and a vibrant and strong environment can and now do co-exist. With this in mind, the White House should do what is best for Alaska and the American people: get out of the way of progress and allow oil and gas operations to thrive in ANWR.