Arctic Petroleum Development: Implications of Advances in Technology
By Terry R. Twyman
Congressional Research Service, 2001
Central to the case for allowing exploration and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is the argument that new technologies will allow industry to get the oil out with minimal damage to the landscape and the wildlife. It is likely that this line of reasoning will be unfurled once again this year, when Republican representatives and senators are expected to pick up their battering ram and renew the charge at the gates of what has become the prize possession of the environmental lobby. The last assault, in March 2003, lost in the Senate, with 52 senators voting to delete from a larger bill a provision that could have opened the refuge for drilling.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is that 79,000-square-kilometer slice of pristine wilderness or barren wasteland, depending upon whom one asks, east of Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope, the largest operating oil field in North America. This is a frozen land so out of the way that it attracts a mere 2,500 tourists a year. By comparison, tiny Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in Rhode Island sees upwards of 65,000. Most of those who do visit ANWR come in the summer and head not for the plain, where the oil is, but 25 to 80 kilometers inland, where the mountains and the grizzlies are.
Temperatures range from 4 °C in the summer to well below –20 °C every day during the winter, with nary a wink of sun in December. The section of the refuge under dispute comprises 6,000 square kilometers of the coastal plain, and its fate has awaited a decision by Congress since it was set aside for further study in 1980. It is likely to hold four to twelve billion barrels of recoverable oil, which, though it may not feed the engines of America for even a year, is still a considerable amount. As one government report puts it so well, “The refuge is an area rich in fauna, flora, and commercial oil potential.”
Leading the charge again will be Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico, chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, who intends to add revenue from drilling leases, perhaps in the neighborhood of a couple billion, to the 2006 budget resolution. Drilling in the refuge isn’t really a budget issue, of course, but treating it as such prevents the possibility of a filibuster, to which budget resolutions are immune. If the resolution passes, leases would have to be granted, on the grounds that budget items must be reconciled with reality. Since the last elections thinned the ranks of senators opposed to drilling, many watchers expect such plans to move forward, despite what ought to be resistance from Democratic senators friendly to environmentalism, like Barbara Boxer of California and John Kerry of Massachusetts.
In 2001, as the debate about the refuge was making its near-yearly round through Washington and the media, members of Congress were provided with a report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) that described the extraction technologies proposed for use in the refuge. The report, “Arctic Petroleum Development: Implications of Advances in Technology,” is for the most part optimistic about the industry’s ability to extract oil while minimizing environmental damage. It was prepared by Terry R. Twyman, a geologist and now a staff member of the American Petroleum Institute, which represents the interests of the oil and natural-gas industries.
The CRS describes itself as the “public-policy research arm” of Congress, charged with providing “nonpartisan, objective analysis and research on all legislative issues.” With a budget of some $80 million, the CRS maintains a huge staff of analysts who produce reports on any topic that might be debated, ranging from problems facing mortgage funder Fannie Mae to homeland security. Its reports are available only to members of Congress but often make their way to the public anyway, usually through the offices of legislators who feel they stand to benefit from them. “Arctic Petroleum Development,” for example, can be found on the website of the American Petroleum Institute.
If Terry Twyman, having taken a job at the API, might be considered pro-oil, that does nothing to diminish the importance of the report, which more or less represents the industry’s best case. A look at this case may help clarify the issues involved, for anyone who is following the debate or simply trying to understand what the refuge may look like to the visitor in 2015.