The Case against Drilling
Of all these technical advances, the environmental lobby, as might be expected, is skeptical. The Wilderness Society, for one, has published a report questioning pretty much every industry assertion about new drilling technology.
Environmentalists continue to doubt that Arctic exploration can be conducted with anything like minimal impact. Rolligons, they contend, are unlikely to work in the hilly terrain that characterizes much of the coastal plain; their low-impact tires simply will not propel them up a grade. Even ice roads, certainly the most elegant of industry solutions to environmental problems, are called into question. Environmental advocates point out that water is a limited resource in the Arctic refuge and is not, in any case, located close to likely oil fields. They also like to mention that global warming has dramatically shortened the arctic ice season. The environmental lobby fully expects that, if drilling is approved, industry will sidestep the Rolligons when needed by applying for exemptions and roll in heavier equipment.
As for drilling, environmentalists point out that directional wells on the North Slope have averaged around one and a half kilometers in length, reaching a maximum of six kilometers in one instance, and that they in fact turned out to be so expensive that BP abandoned them entirely in 2000. Environmentalists also doubt claims that exploration can somehow be confined to winter, pointing out that oil companies have never ceased production in the summer on the North Slope.
In these and other arguments, however, one begins to sense that environmentalists are not so much addressing the technologies themselves as industry’s willingness to employ them, an interpretation borne out by the title of the Wilderness Society’s report on the subject, “Broken Promises.” The bulk of most environmental presentations, in fact, concerns not possibilities or drawbacks inherent in an approach like directional drilling but rather industry’s poor record in employing old and new technology alike, complete with the usual photos of production facilities belching black smoke, the sprawling infrastructure at Prudhoe Bay, and roads crisscrossing the tundra. Environmentalists fully expect more of the same in the refuge.
More to the point, as environmentalists see it, the argument is not about technology at all. Fancy wells are still wells, less intrusive exploration is still intrusive, and pipelines remain pipelines (as well as the subject of the most laughably devious language in recent House bills regarding the refuge, which would limit the footprint of any industry activity—including the 150-kilometer or longer pipeline—to eight square kilometers but interprets the pipeline’s footprint as that of the thin piers on which it would rest). None of these innovations, environmentalists contend, is compatible with wilderness, and they will turn a refuge into an industrial corridor.
It is not beyond the bounds of reason, however, to imagine that industry could drill with acceptably low impact. Man is an intelligent animal, after all, and ought to be able to remove oil from the ground without devastating the surrounding area. Less philosophically, the legal fines attached to environmental regulations are a mighty motivator. David Masiel, a former North Slope oilman, addressed this topic in a 2004 article in Outside magazine. He visited the North Slope and had conversations with drillers, executives, and enforcement officials. He found a new culture of cleanliness, mainly inspired by the threat of expensive lawsuits, to the point that drillers were actually baking gravel free of spilled oil. Writing for a magazine that has previously taken the administration to task for its environmental policies, Masiel concluded that drilling could be done in the Arctic with a tolerable level of damage—but only if clean drilling was legally enforced.
Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, in testimony before the House in 2003, emphasized that “the administration views tough regulation as an essential part of the ANWR proposal.” But the administration has squandered its credibility there—something that may not have been apparent when Masiel took his trip in 2002—and has in fact been rolling back environmental regulations at a historically unprecedented rate. Areas designated as “roadless” in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, for instance, are no longer roadless, and protections for wildlife across the United States have been greatly weakened, as bird watchers in New York recently discovered when a famous red-tailed hawk’s nest was removed from a cornice by finicky apartment dwellers. Rules that have survived are simply not enforced: old cases have been dropped, and new ones are decreasingly pursued. It is only realistic to imagine that the same standards will be applied to the oil fields.
The technology for drilling with low impact may be available. Based on the administration’s record of legislation and enforcement, however, it is unlikely that industry will be compelled to use it. Those technologies, such as coiled-tubing drilling, that have already proven themselves to be both environmentally and economically advantageous may be employed. Those that significantly increase the cost of drilling will be shoved aside unless the administration mandates their use, which it will not. Industry is not a moral being but an economic creature responding only to economic stimuli. As such, given the current balance of power in Washington, DC, there is good reason to conclude that big oil probably could drill clean, but probably won’t.
Bryant Urstadt has written for Harper’s, Rolling Stone, and the New Yorker. He lives in Guildford, CT.