Alaska damaged by past oil production
5th March 2003
Opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling would inevitably affect the environment, says an expert panel that analysed the impact of past drilling elsewhere on Alaska's North Slope.
Improved technology and regulations have reduced the environmental effects since oil was discovered there in 1968, but have not eliminated them, says the panel.
Environmentalists have been fighting plans to drill the refuge's supposedly rich petroleum fields for many years. A bitterly divided Congress asked the National Research Council to review the effects of past drilling in the 230,000 square kilometre North Slope to predict potential impact on the refuge.
However, the final report, released on Tuesday, is unlikely to end the dispute. Environmental groups hailed the report. But Senator Ted Stevens, a Republican from Alaska and a key drilling advocate, blasted it as "biased" because three of the panel's 18 members had signed a petition opposed to drilling in the refuge.
A panel spokesman said the report was a consensus of all members, including several who had worked for the oil industry, and that it had been approved by 15 outside reviewers.
The major environmental impacts so far have come from normal activities, rather than catastrophic oil spills. Companies search for buried oil using three-dimensional seismic profiling, which requires driving across frozen tundra in winter to make measurements. The traffic damages plants, causes erosion, and leaves clearly visible tracks. Permanent roads can cause flooding.
"Some damage persists for a couple of decades," and it accumulates over time, said panel chairman Gordon Orians, a retired zoologist from the University of Washington in Seattle.
Offshore seismic profiling also has a detrimental affect, generating strong acoustic signals that drive the endangered bowhead whale away from the Arctic shore.
Garbage produced by people working in the petroleum fields has become a food source for predators, increasing the populations of brown bears, arctic foxes, ravens and glaucous gulls. That has been bad news for nesting birds, because the predators also prey on their eggs and young.
These losses have left some species unable to reproduce fast enough to maintain their populations in some areas. So far these declines have not affected endangered eiders and the yellow-billed loon, but Orians said that expanded drilling could affect the eiders' breeding grounds.
The good news has been the lack of major oil spills on the North Slope, and small spills in the oil fields have left no long-lasting effect. Although the Exxon Valdez carried oil from the North Slope, that spill was along the southern Alaska coast.
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