Hello everybody! I’ve kind of phoned it in over the past few weeks, but there’s a good reason for that. What? Did you want me to share it with you? Well I don’t want to, so tough. Live in suspense, my loyal and occasional and apathetic and non-existent readers. Some sweet day you may learn of what has been new in my life and why it’s distracting me from my normal blogging duties, but it is not this day! Until then, be content with the last post before the fourth quarter-annual State of the Season, and see if you can contribute to the change that is necessary to literally save the world.
Last Wednesday, US President Barack Obama’s administration granted permission for Royal Dutch Shell PLC – better known simply as Shell Oil, or that gas station that accepts my Kroger Fuel Points – to begin exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea of Alaska. The intent is to curb the United States’ dependence on foreign oil reserves, yet the economic benefits of this drilling and any drilling are debatable, and the risk of detrimental impact on the environment in the Chukchi Sea and everywhere else is, as Jimmy McMillan says of New York’s rent, too damn high.
When I was in college, I wrote a paper about the problems concerning the potential drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in northeast Alaska. What follows is a paraphrasing of that composition with jokes added in and a list of my references at the end. Please feel free to check them out for greater detail on the debate of whether or not to drill in ANWR. I present this to you all now not because I’m continuing to be lazy in my writing (well, maybe a little) but because I feel it applies to the current situation. I’m a much bigger fan of unlimited and cleaner renewable fuels like solar, wind, and water power than I am of finite and dirty sources of energy like oil, natural gas, and coal. It makes more sense to me to pay the heftier upfront cost of switching over our primary energy sources to the longer lasting and cheaper overall renewables than to continue to run with the polluting power we’ve got for only so much longer. I’ll get more into my reasons for concern in a bit, but first some historical background is in order.
In 1960, one year after becoming a state, Alaska preserved 8.9 million acres of land in its northeastern coastal area as the Arctic National Wildlife Range. In 1980, 9.2 million more acres were added and it was renamed the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and was deemed “off-limits” by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), so that it could not be developed in any way. However, Section 1002 of the Act reserved 1.5 million acres of the coastal plain for oil development if Congress votes for it. This coastal plain is referred to as the 1002 Area. I know, wildly original, right?
Negative impacts on the local environment
As I hinted at before, oil drilling can have detrimental effects on both animals and humans, and the 1002 Area is no exception. Three common impacts on the environment from oil development are: “1.) increased soil erosion and siltation of streams” as a result of deforestation, construction, vehicles, and explosions; “2.) disruption of surface and groundwater flow” as a result of surface compaction, drilling wells, and extracting water for drilling; and “3.) persistent loud noises” as a result of explosions. Furthermore, oil facilities pollute the air and water with: “(a) oil, grease, and other contaminants left on the ground surface, (b) well blowouts and subsequent evaporation or burning of the oil, (c) mudpit flooding or leaching, and (d) pipeline ruptures or leaks”. Surprisingly, one of the most ecological damaging impacts resulting from increased oil production is the roads built in formerly wilderness areas. Roads allow for more vehicles to travel to the oil facilities, but this also leads to more dust and noise being generated as well as more collisions with the native wildlife. Such collisions are usually not fun for either party involved. (Stege et al. 1986)
One example of a species directly affected by the oil development in the refuge is the Porcupine River herd of caribou that travels each year to the 1002 Area to give birth to their calves. There are about 123,000 caribou (that is an actual estimate and not a number made up for convenience, although it is nice and round) that come within two miles of oil equipment, but scientists believe that further oil facility development will push the herd back 30 miles from their normal birthing grounds, gradually reducing their overall herd population. (Kotchen et al. 2006)
Also affected by the activity of oil facilities are birds. A study of shorebirds in the 1002 Area revealed that of the 18 species known to breed in the region: “seven are listed as Highly Imperiled or as species of High Concern in the U.S. Shorebird Conservation plan and updated status lists and five species are listed as Birds of Conservation Concern by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because of small or declining populations”. These birds of concern and other avian species in the 1002 Area suffer from the oil operations through direct effects like “loss of habitat through construction of roads, drilling pads, and associated infrastructure, and exposure to oil from spills”, as well as “secondary impacts from access roads and drilling pads [including] dust, changes in hydrology, thawing of permafrost, and roadside snow accumulation”. It is also suggested that oil development could reduce “nesting effort due to disturbance” and bring about “changes in predation rates” as a result of human influence on the birds’ predator populations. The scientists conducting the shorebird study concluded that based upon their population estimates “under WHSRN (Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network) criteria, the Arctic Refuge coastal plain is an important shorebird breeding area, and the association of many species with wetland and riparian habitats indicates that these areas are of particularly high value.” (Brown et al. 2007)
Humans are no strangers to the effects of oil development either. “Oil workers around the world face significant occupational hazards” such as explosions, fire, and chemical contamination. Humans on and off the rigs can be exposed “to naturally occurring radioactive materials brought to the surface during drilling, as well as through the bioaccumulation of oil, mercury, and other products in mammals and fish that humans consume.” (O’Rourke et al. 2003)
Perhaps the greatest example of human suffering in the ANWR is the gradual loss of culture and resources for the Gwich’in people. Indigenous to northeastern Alaska and Canada, the Gwich’in live in fifteen villages “along the migration route of the Porcupine herd of caribou” . The degradation of the Porcupine River habitat directly impacts its caribou herd which the Gwich’in rely on “for their subsistence and for the survival of their culture”. The caribou are such an important resource for the Gwich’in that the coastal plain in the northern slope of the ANWR where the herd calve their young is considered by them as “the place where life begins”. The Gwich’in refused to receive any money from oil operations in the 1002 Area despite the legal obligations of such companies to reimburse native people for the use of their land under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. Instead, the Gwich’in have opted to “maintain their traditional way of life” of living off of the land through hunting, fishing, and gathering, recognizing that “money is no substitute for caribou” due to its use as food, clothing, tools, etc. In addition to the Gwich’in, similar Natives like the Inupiat Eskimo rely on the bounty of the land and the sea in the 1002 Area for household needs. You go Gwich’in and Inupiat Eskimo people! (Oil on Ice 2010)
Furthermore, if anything were to happen to damage oil operations in the 1002 Area, like an oil spill, the resulting impact on the environment would be disastrous. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez, a supertanker, spilled around 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound when its hull ruptured. To pay for the incredible damage it had done to the once pristine ecosystem, “a federal court ordered Exxon to pay $5 billion in punitive damages” in 1994, but Exxon appealed and got the amount severely cut, and has since only paid out $3.8 billion (Billitterri 2010). This serves as a prime example where an oil company has come into Alaska and dealt destruction that is still hurting the ecosystem today and then left the locals to deal with the catastrophic damage. Who is to say that they will not do the same thing in the ANWR? Or for that matter in the Chukchi Sea?
Economic reasons against drilling
In an intensive economic study of the estimates of oil thought to be in the 1002 Area in the ANWR compared with the costs to acquire that oil, Hahn et al. concluded that “such an initiative would likely have only a modest impact on future world oil prices—on the order of 1%” and therefore, little impact on reducing current oil prices. In 1991 it was determined that “the US Geological Survey’s mean estimate of recoverable oil in ANWR is 3 .45 billion barrels. At 1989 rates of oil use, this represents about 200 days’ supply”. Considering that this is based upon estimates from about 20 years ago, it is safe to assume that today we consume far more oil faster than 3.45 billion barrels within 200 days. The same article raises a good point that, unlike its data, still rings true today: expanding the industry for a “depleted resource base” will simply increase the production of greenhouse gases, thereby accelerating global warming and creating more ecological concerns by putting “some of the nation’s most important and sensitive ecosystems at risk for at most a few years’ additional supply of oil” (Kaufman et al. 1991). Thus, even if we could live with harming the ANWR’s ecosystem through the process of oil drilling, the profit from it would be miniscule.
It seems that the most logical course of action is not to fight over drilling rights in the ANWR but to lessen, and eventually eliminate our need for oil as a fuel source. How then do we reduce our dependence on oil? The Oil on Ice website encourages higher fuel efficiency standards for cars in the hope that less gasoline will be consumed and the demand for oil will decrease, but this will only briefly alleviate the current oil predicament. The future of fuel is going to have to be something other than oil and coal, which give off great quantities of pollution and are running out. What we need in America are fuel sources that are renewable with clean emissions. Fortunately, such fuel sources do exist. According to chief executive of the Rocky Mountain Institute, Amory Lovins, “Resources like wind are not only widely available in the market but are sufficiently abundant to meet all U.S. electricity, or even total energy, needs” (Cooper 2005). “The earth’s wind resource is so large that it could technically provide five times the total energy consumed by the entire world from all sources. Wind turbines are part of “the fastest-growing energy source in the world” and wind power “has the lowest cost of any form of renewable energy other than geothermal (Gore 2009)” mainly because of the global availability of wind.
Solar power “uses photovoltaic cells to convert the sun’s energy into electricity”. Since sunlight is available everywhere except during nighttime and cloudy days it is a nearly ever-present source of energy. Because of this great availability, solar power outshines oil, coal, and natural gas as all of the world’s combined amount of all of those “contain the same amount of energy as the earth receives in only 50 days from the sun”. This is significant because solar power can be used in many ways, like generating electricity for buildings, vehicles, factories, and even entire cities. Furthermore, there are no pollutants emitted by solar technology. These advantages over traditional energy sources make solar power a realistic long-term replacement for our current polluting fuels.
Geothermal energy is the natural heat Earth generates in its core and it can be used to efficiently generate electricity so well that it could “match all of the energy available from coal, oil, and gas combined”. Geothermal plants generate electricity by using a system of pressure tanks that hot water from the earth flow through with the escaping steam triggering a turbine-operated generator. Since geothermal facilities do not use any fuel to function they are inexpensive to run, although the construction of the facility is expensive.
You can say what you want about former California governor and eternal Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the man politically paved the way to literally pave the way for a “hydrogen highway” with hydrogen fuel stations throughout the state for cars with hydrogen fuel cells in the hopes that making hydrogen a more accessible fuel will increase the use of hydrogen-powered vehicles. Greater availability of hydrogen fueling stations will increase the interest and practicality of driving a hydrogen-powered vehicle in America where only gasoline and diesel are widely available vehicle fuels. If other states follow California’s initiative then hydrogen could become a serious alternative to these other fuels, and possibly a long-term replacement for them. Hydrogen’s potential as a chief source of fuel for most of America’s vehicles is growing everyday because hydrogen is renewable and oil reserves are diminishing worldwide. All that is needed now is for the rest of America to construct hydrogen highways of their own while manufacturing more hydrogen-powered vehicles.
By taking advantage of developing and using these energy sources, along with simple tasks to conserve more energy, such as upgrading to more energy efficient appliances and cars and better tires (Weeks 2005), we can reduce our emissions and our need to obtain more oil. Thus there will not be any more debates over whether to drill or not in the future if there is no need to use oil.
“Scientists generally agree that the release of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases” through combustion of oil and the other fossil fuels — coal and, to a lesser degree, natural gas — causes far more damage to the environment than oil spills. For decades scientists have known that greenhouse gases, most abundantly CO2, cause a warming effect within the Earth’s atmosphere, and thus, they are aware that the constant release of such gases from oil developing facilities like rigs and refineries are a larger problem than the occasional oil spill. “Polar ice sheets and high mountain glaciers around the world are melting faster than earlier predicted, while droughts and erratic weather patterns are blamed on rising surface temperatures” (Cooper 2005).
Joseph Romm, an Energy advisor for the Clinton administration says that a plus 2°C rise in global average temperature is “an enormous risk,” and he elaborates “Global warming is why we should be willing to consider spending a lot of money to develop a whole new energy system” (Cooper 2005). Sooooo, why are we not doing this? The answer is probably related to our concerns regarding oil production lying elsewhere, mainly through selling a coveted resource that is sure to make a profit. Alternative fuels are still not popular enough to sell on a global scale. Why would an oil company stop selling their most profitable resource to promote an alternative they are unsure of the marketability of while there is still oil available? Especially if the competition is still going to drill for oil, why should an oil company stop be the first to stop drilling and risk a major profit loss?
It seems that the greatest incentive to drill in the ANWR is to reduce our dependence on foreign energy, but “the cost of destroying one of the last great wilderness areas on the planet (Kotchen et al. 2006)” to collect what is only a mediocre amount of oil compared to what is collected worldwide is not worth it. There does not appear to be a very great quantity of oil in the 1002 Area, so any efforts to collect the oil that is there will not provide an outstanding profit. Furthermore, even if every last drop of oil is acquired from the ANWR, there still is a limited amount of oil left in the world, too small of a supply to provide the global community fuel far into the future. Therefore, alternative fuel sources like wind, solar, geothermal, and hydrogen power must carry us on in the distant future. Why wait until then to develop them?
Unfortunately for the alternative fuel revolution, as a result of oil discoveries in the North Sea and Nigeria, the price of gasoline steadily decreased over the years after the 1970s shortage, so the American desire to develop alternative fuels died away. It seems that each time alternative fuels started to gain some ground in the U.S., Americans would shift their focus back to oil, coal, and natural gas. The amount of alternative fuel research funding provided by the Energy Plan that President Carter developed in 1977 was gradually reduced to next to nothing during the Reagan years. Federal funding supplied $1 billion in alternative fuel research in 1981, but only contributed $116 million in 1989. Opposing political party battles continued years later when President Clinton proposed reducing “energy consumption” to 30% below 1985 levels by 2005, but was dismissed by the Republican-controlled Congress (Cooper 2005). Thus, many opportunities to advance alternative fuel study and production have been cast asunder by feuding political opponents over the past few decades.
In summary, the negative impacts on the environment greatly outweigh the meager economic profit that could be acquired from oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The production of oil will yield major ecological detriments to wildlife species, like caribou. Moreover, the local human population could be exposed to many harmful chemicals and waste products associated with the oil facilities. The facilities themselves will pollute the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, like CO2, thus accelerating the warming effects of climate change.
Through the composition of this paper it was interesting to learn “the oil and gas industry in the United States alone creates more solid and liquid waste than all other categories of municipal, agricultural, mining, and industrial wastes combined” (O’Rourke et al. 2003). The engineering of alternative fuel facilities, like solar and geothermal energy plants, was also interesting to study.
It is more economically sound to invest in research and development of cleaner and renewable alternative fuel sources for permanent future use, than to pursue a finite and vanishing resource that has a high pollution rate. More research must be conducted to develop globally available renewable fuels, whether they are wind, solar, geothermal, or hydrogen powered. Gaylord Nelson, the Wilderness Society chairman, says “The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard” (Stege et al. 1986). By reducing our dependency on oil and embracing a future of alternative fuels we can lay the foundation for a more environmentally conscience and fuel efficient future. Hopefully, one that future generations will thank us for.
Thanks for reading and thanks for dealing with my short post from last week (although it was a pretty awesome episode of Rick and Morty that I included)! Let me know your thoughts regarding this issue or any other, or simply send me a request for what I should write about next to email@example.com. Track your way back next week for State of the Season 4 and another sultry picture of Chris Pratt.
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Oil on Ice. 2010. “Our Communities.” Woodside, CA: Oil on Ice Partners, Retrieved December 5, 2010
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