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Ideas | Scott L. Montgomery

The Alaska refuge will never be the same, drilling or not

A section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska targeted for oil and natural gas drilling.Associated Press/File

After decades of bitter struggle, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is being opened to the oil industry. The measure was included in the GOP tax bill to gain the key vote of Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski.

This bill, however, stands no chance of being the final word. The refuge has been called America’s Serengeti and the last petroleum frontier, terms I’ve seen over more than a decade studying this area and the politics around it. But they only hint at the multifold conflict the area represents — spanning politics, economics, culture, and philosophy.

The national debate about opening the refuge stretches back for decades. But even as groups on either side of the issue have dug into their positions, the conditions on the ground are changing significantly. The vote undoubtedly increases the chance that drilling will occur in the area. But what happens depends far more on the vagaries of the global oil market and a changing climate than on the political process.


Wildlife is why the refuge exists. With 45 species of mammals and over 200 species of birds from six continents, the Alaska refuge is more biodiverse than almost any area in the Arctic. This is especially true of the coastal plain portion, or 1002 Area, the area now being opened up to drilling. This has the largest number of polar bear dens in Alaska and supports muskoxen, Arctic wolves, foxes, hares, and dozens of fish species. It also serves as temporary home for millions of migrating waterfowl and porcupine caribou.

One part of the debate is over how drilling might impact this unique concentration of life and the opportunity it offers to scientific study.

At the same time, debate over this area’s mineral resources has existed since even before Alaska’s founding. An effort by the Fish and Wildlife Service to withdraw part of northeast Alaska from mining (later drilling) was passed by the House in 1960 but then killed in the Senate, on the urging of both Alaska senators. It was resurrected through an executive order establishing a wildlife range (not refuge, which requires government protection and study).


The area thus began as a battleground over state versus federal control of resources. After the oil crises of the 1970s, President Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980, increasing the size of the area to 19 million acres and changing it to a “refuge.” The act also mandated an evaluation of wildlife, oil and natural gas resources, and impacts if drilling occurred.

The evaluation had three principal conclusions. First, the 1.5 million-acre 1002 Area, had “outstanding wilderness values.” Second, it also had large hydrocarbon resources, likely tens of billions of barrels. Third, oil development would bring widespread changes in habit, but adequate protection for wildlife was achievable.

These findings ignited major opposition from environmental groups. However, low oil prices meant that no companies were interested in drilling. Congress and the President traded blows over drilling for the next 20 years.

These struggles added support to a larger view: that wilderness is incompatible with any level of development. That’s partly because the 1964 Wilderness Act, a venerable law protecting wildlands, has a definition of “wilderness” that’s ambiguous: “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character. . . [that] generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.” The vagueness allows that drilling could happen so long as protection and reclamation occurred.


Today, however, pro-wilderness organizations and the Wildlife Service accept no such allowance. “You can have the oil. Or you can have this pristine place. You can’t have both. No compromise,” as put by Robert Mrazek, former chair of the Alaska Wilderness League.

Saving the area has thus become an effort to save the very idea of wilderness, culturally and philosophically.

The most recent comprehensive assessment in the 1002 Area shows 10.4 billion barrels of oil and 35 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, worth about $600 billion before drilling. If well costs were $50 a barrel, the value after extraction would be $100 billion, minus a federal royalty of 12.5 percent. Note that Alaska gets 90 percent of that federal royalty and pays a yearly dividend to every state resident — one reason many Alaskans favor drilling.

The assessment should be considered low, even minimal. This is because it was made in 1998, well before the current era of shale oil and gas and tight oil and gas development. New discoveries and use of fracking suggest there is more accessible petroleum. It’s impossible to say how much more.

Given the possible reserves and some pipeline access near the refuge via Point Thomson, a producing field, how interested might companies actually be in drilling? The answer for now seems to be: not very. This comes from my own discussions with industry personnel and from the results of a recent lease sale in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska to the west of the refuge: Out of 900 tracts offered, only seven received bids.


Another multiyear period of high oil prices — around $80 per barrel or higher — needs to arrive before 1002 looks attractive. Leasing and drilling in an area with extreme weather, little detailed data on the subsurface geology, no discoveries or production, and no existing infrastructure is considered high-risk, all the more so in an uncertain price environment like today’s.

My own guess is that the estimated $1.1 billion revenue from a refuge leasing program has roughly the same probability of coming true as the discovery that climate change is indeed a Chinese hoax. Similarly, we should probably view with a dash of skepticism Senator Murkowski’s statements that drilling will “create thousands of good jobs. . . keep energy affordable for families and businesses. . . reduce the federal deficit, and strengthen our national security” by reducing foreign oil.

Meanwhile, climate change continues to alter and damage the Arctic, even if no development happens. As such, it is hard not to hope that we will never need the oil that lies beneath the refuge, a precious place by any definition.

Whichever way we turn, no stable compromise exists in this conflict. Opening the area to leasing now will not prevent a ban later on. Even native voices are divided on the issue: The Inupiat, would welcome the work that drilling could bring, while the Gwich’in, see development as jeopardizing their culture.


Legal challenges to any level of leasing are certain, including those intended to slow the process until drilling opponents will win later elections, if they can.

The one truth all can agree on is that the area has never been a “refuge” in the landscape of American society.

The refuge has the largest number of polar bear dens in Alaska. Reuters/File

Scott L. Montgomery is an affiliate faculty member at the Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington. This article was adapted from The Conversation.