ANWR’s oil reserves are too important to keep in the ground

ANWR’s oil reserves are too important to keep in the ground
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The benefits of Alaskan oil production have been reported so often and so fully over the past 40 years to suppose that the supporters of opening a limited area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to energy development can snap their laptops shut and declare the controversial case closed.

Not so fast.

Based on funding earmarked for oil and gas development on federal lands in its proposed 2018 budget, the Interior Department has given a green light to exploratory seismic studies of ANWR’s coastal plain, the necessary first step in the leasing process and the only way of determining how much oil lies beneath the surface. But seismic testing can’t begin without congressional approval.

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What’s at stake?

 

One estimate is that 10.4 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil lie beneath ANWR’s coastal plain; the number could be as large as 16 billion barrels, according to the US Geological Survey. The potential daily peak production there, 1.4 million barrels per day, is more oil than the U.S. imports from Saudi Arabia.

Far from requiring exploration and recovery operations to intrude on the whole 19.6-million-acre arctic wildlife refuge, which is four times the size of Massachusetts, the coastal plain covers less than 10 percent of ANWR’s total land area. Development of that limited area has not been prohibited in perpetuity, unlike the rest of the sanctuary.

The oil and gas industry cleaned up its act years ago, and much of the credit goes to innovations that allow energy companies to find and produce oil in ever more remote and harsher environments. For example, the development of three-dimensional seismic computational power allows geologists to convert raw seismic data into accurate models of subsurface oil fields. That breakthrough has reduced the amount of drilling needed in any single place, a good example of the industry’s “small-footprint” progress.

New technologies enable companies to drill multiple wells at the same location, with lines extending outward from a single platform, some more than five miles away, reducing on-land impacts from drilling operations that might otherwise be disruptive to caribou and other wildlife. 

The debate over ANWR drilling has raged for decades, pitting environmentalists and some of Alaska’s native American tribes against those who maintain that opening up the refuge to oil drilling will enhance the nation’s energy security and reduce the federal budget deficit by the billions of dollars oil companies will pay to lease tracts of land on the coastal plain and in other taxes and fees after development begins.

The current Republican-controlled Congress is hardly known for swift action on important policy issues, but doing nothing about ANWR is among the worst things Congress can do. The development of the nation’s energy resources will have a vital effect on how we all live in the next several years.

One thing Congress can do before the end of this year is to make sure exploratory seismic studies start on ANWR’s coastal plain. To that end and backed by the governor, Alaska’s U.S. Senate delegation introduced a bill in early 2017 to at long last begin the process by opening just 2,000 acres of the coastal plain’s surface area (called “section 1002”) to oil and gas development.

ANWR alone cannot meet all of our energy needs, but it makes no sense to continue to keep a potentially huge source of domestic oil off-limits. 

William Shughart, research director of the Independent Institute, is J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University’s Huntsman School of Business.