Alaska is the sight of one of Earth’s last great migrations and home to thousands of Arctic species. In 2018, under Trump legislation, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is being opened up to global oil companies for drilling. Besides its effect on climate change and global warming, what will this mean for the species and communities that call the Alaskan environment their home?
The History of ANWR
By area Alaska is America’s biggest state, with a deep, rich history of people and wildlife. In the twenty-first century it is still largely undeveloped – few roads have been built and people depend on fish and local wildlife, rather than grocery stores, for their food.
Before it reached statehood, Alaska was managed by the US government. Under this regime salmon stocks were overfished, predators poisoned and species become endangered, some even facing extinction. In 1903, Roosevelt founded the National Wildlife Refuge to protect boundless areas of the United States, which in turn began the conservation of Alaskan wildlife. However, Alaskans knew that they could do even better on their own. In 1958 they won the fight, with Eisenhower signing the Alaska Statehood Act. By 1960, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) had been established to preserve and protect the nature of the northeastern region of Alaska.
This 19.6 million acre long section of Alaska is considered one of the most pristine areas in the US. Home to brown bears, polar bears, oxen, foxes and nests of migratory birds, it’s no wonder that in native culture this coastal plain is considered the sacred place where all life begins.
In 1980, drilling for oil was banned in the area – a massive step forward for environmental conservation. Unfortunately, this was short-lived. In 2017, the Trump administration opened up the reserve for oil drilling and exploration.
How much oil is there in the refuge?
The first step in the process of opening up the ANWR to the global fuel economy is a proposal to conduct seismic testing for oil and gas. Vehicles with shakers send tremors through the landscape in order to map underground hydrocarbon deposits. If predictions are correct, there could be up to 11.8 billion barrels of oil ready for the taking.
This brings us to the key reason America wants access to Alaska’s landscape. Money. This vast amount of reserves could generate $1 billion in revenue in the next ten years alone, massively boosting the US export market. On top of this, America’s unemployment rate has been steadily rising from 2014-2017, with 6.6 million unemployed as of December 2017. Opening up ANWR to oil drilling also unleashed new job opportunities – the creation of 130,000 jobs directly related to drilling and many more in supporting services.
What does Alaska think about oil drilling?
Within native Alaskan communities there is a sense of independence and distance from their American heritage. They live off the nature of their environment, relying little on the rest of the country for resources. However, Alaska also receives one of the largest government subsidies in the whole of the US in a deal created by… oil.
Outside of the refuge area, Alaska is involved in providing billions of barrels of oil to the US. Despite protests by conservation groups, environmental organisations and native communities, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System was built in the early 1970s following a national oil crisis to transport the fossil fuel from the north coast of Alaska to the south. Alaska received a $900 million dollar bonus after leasing out the oil fields.
Shortly after, the state established the Permanent Fund. This was designed to benefit the current and future generations of Alaska by using a share of the oil revenues to pay for schools, care homes, streetlights and other infrastructure. In 2015 the revenue reached a record high of $2,072 per person.
This perhaps goes some way to explaining the mixed consensus on oil drilling in Alaska. Many people see the oil reserves as a chance to boost their economy and become a modernised state. If oil drilling in their environment is inevitably going to happen, some feel that they may as well co-operate to reap as much financial benefit as possible.
The Gwich’in Nation: hope is not lost
Not all Alaskans see drilling as a positive step forward in their life and development as a nation. In 1971, when oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay, the native Inupiaq tribe lost nearly all their land to drilling infrastructure. Communities surrounding ANWR fear the same will happen to them if the drilling is allowed.
One such tribe is Gwich’in Nation, the northernmost Indian nation and home to 9000 individuals that actively protest the drilling proposals. The tribe depends on the native Porcupine Caribou herd for sustenance, and a proposed drill sight is right at the centre of their migration and breeding ground. It is believed that the disruptions will affect the birthing rate and lead to a huge population decline.
The native people are also very conscious of keeping their traditions and natural way of life, and fear that the introduction of drilling crews and infrastructure will disrupt this. Studies in other drilling sites around Alaska have shown an increase in rates of diabetes and alcoholism via urban influences.
The effect of drilling on wildlife
In order for the drilling to take place, airstrips, roads, homes and other infrastructure would need to be built to serve the 300 people in the mapping team. This will be hugely destructive to the 700+ species which rely on the refuge as a home or migratory breeding ground, as well as polluting the environment in the process.
Here are some examples. The Musk Ox conserve their energy in winter by shutting down their metabolism and moving as little as possible. The disturbance from construction and drilling is likely to cause them to become stressed and dispel all their energy at once, making it hard to survive the tough season. Similarly, polar bears are highly sensitive to even the slightest human disturbance, and they will often respond by abandoning their cubs. As global warming and depleted food supply push polar bears closer to civilisations looking for food scraps, the interaction could be disastrous for both bears and humans. Conservationists have also expressed worries about the introduction of invasive species that could occur from drilling due to ship ballast waters. With such a fragile ecosystem, it is not certain if the Arctic could cope with this change to its ecology.
Outside of wildlife conservation, there are further disastrous effects on the environment. The drilling itself can cause melting and deterioration of the permafrost layer. This will release large amounts of stored carbon, adding to greenhouse gas emissions and in turn to the global warming of climate change. If explosives are used to open up areas for drilling, huge amounts of toxic waste water can be released containing sulphuric acid that is dangerous to the health of the ecosystem. If this wasn’t enough, the ANWR area is already prone to earthquakes, and if one occurred in the future it could release and disperse these chemicals with fatal consequences.
The future of natural Alaska
American conservationist John Muir once famously said,
‘Even though humanity is destroying much of the world, there are three things that are too great for humanity to ever destroy. He will never be able to destroy the frozen poles, the ocean or the Grand Canyon.’
Flash forward to today. The poles are melting, oceans are warming and filling with plastic, and Trump is talking about opening uranium mines around the Grand Canyon edges.
ANWR is a warning, a sign of what can happen if economic goals are put in front of care and respect for the environment. It is hoped that the drilling methods used will be as controlled as possible and that animals such as the Oxen and Caribou will recover and learn to live around the disruptions. Only time will tell how natural Alaska can deal with the appearance of modern mining technology and whether the sacrifice of a pristine landscape is worth the economic bounty.
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