Oil production has environmental benefits

My turn

Posted: Tuesday, May 01, 2001

Kwame Diehl needed some historical perspective and balance when he discussed his view of the role of petroleum in the world and the development of the 1002 area of ANWR in his recent My Turn in the Empire.

Besides reciting the usual scientifically unsubstantiated claims about caribou and oil development, the article takes a general sideswipe at petroleum in general with the pronouncement that "a society that thrives on non-renewable energy sources can not survive."

It wasn't long ago at the turn of the century that petroleum was saving two important renewable resources from destruction: Whales and forests.

At that time, whale oil was being extensively used for lamp oil and for candles for lighting. When petroleum came on the scene, it decimated the whaling industry. Ironically, petroleum saved more whales than Greenpeace ever dreamed of. Whaling became a minor industry until the '50s when it was revived to harvest whale oil to make margarine. When technological innovation allowed the hydrolization of cereal oils to make margarine, whaling was dealt another death blow. What remains is a minuscule meat fishery for cultures that are accustomed to eating whale meat.

At the turn of the century, forests were also being decimated for home heating and cooking. Petroleum also gave forests a reprieve. In fact deforestation is still a crisis in areas of the world that do not have access to petroleum.

Although petroleum developments contain finite reserves, there are also environmental advantages to this, specifically that they only constitute short-term uses of the land. If adequate reclamation language is contained in the leases, there should be no permanent loss of habitat. For example, Alaska's North Slope leases contain provisions which require the companies to set aside funds to completely remove the developments at Prudhoe Bay and the pipeline when they have completed their useful economic lives. There is no permanent loss of habitat such as that created by agriculture and housing development.

Petroleum will be a major source of fuel for the foreseeable future in the United States. Even under the most extreme energy conservation plans promoted by any environmental group, the U.S. will still be importing petroleum from overseas sources, many of which have far fewer environmental controls over development. Now where would you rather see that development take place?

It is ironic that on the same page of the Empire that this My Turn article appeared was a letter from the UAS Amnesty International Club in Juneau stating their concern, along with the Sierra Club, about the negative impacts of oil and gas development in countries outside the U.S.

They state "U.S. companies have taken advantage of lax or non-existent environmental and human rights standards to build pipelines that have degraded the natural environment and endangered communities."

When are we going to get to the point that we take pride in our environmental requirements in the U.S., which are among the highest in the world?

The fact is that even under the most aggressive conservation and alternative energy scenarios petroleum will continue to be an important transition fuel as we move toward a hydrogen-based economy. Pushing petroleum development off to other countries with lower standards is a net loss for the environment.

Paul Fuhs of Anchorage is a resource development consultant who lives in Juneau during legislative sessions.

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