Myths about ANWR development

My turn

Posted: Wednesday, July 25, 2001

During my 35 years in Alaska, I have always been considered a "Greenie." However, when it comes to oil development in ANWR, I am an enthusiastic advocate. Aggressive action by environmentalists in the 1970s fostered responsible development on the North Slope. I have visited there many times and seen it first hand.

When I speak to friends and relatives down south, I realize that there are two commonly held myths about this subject that must be set right. I hope Alaskan readers will share this information with residents of other states.

Find out more about this issue is our ANWR special section - Refuge of Riches.

Myth No. 1: Oil development will rape the last frontier, disrupt caribou migrations and make a big mess.

Reality No. 1: When Americans think "oil development," the image they are conjuring up looks like the mess they've seen in oil fields in California, Texas and elsewhere. Lots of sooty, ugly derricks and rocker arms, side by side, like giant preying mantises sucking oil from the denuded hillside. It's true! Most people tell me that's what they imagine. The reason things look like that in other states is because each leaseholder installs the mechanism to suck out the oil before his nearby competitor gets it all.

On Alaska's North Slope, area leaseholders belong to a consortium with one designated operator. By using "directional drilling," pipe is sent underground in many directions from one common source. All those acres of ugly mess are replaced by one small gravel pad. When the drilling is completed, the derrick is removed and the well is capped with a "Christmas Tree", a small valve apparatus that looks like a mutated fire hydrant. No rocker arms, no abandoned derricks, just a clean gravel pad.

Several of these pads are scattered around the Prudhoe Bay area. With a few base camps, warehouses, mechanical buildings, maintenance shops and an airstrip, the oil field is a clean, well-maintained facility. During the short summer season, herds of caribou graze among the oil wells unfazed. They particularly like the raised gravel roads because there are fewer mosquitoes there. Trumpeter swans, whistling swans, and many other migratory birds nest undisturbed in the little ponds and lagoons around Prudhoe Bay. I am not making this up. I have seen them.

Myth No. 2: The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in fact the entire North Slope, is a beautiful wilderness jewel that should be preserved for Americans to enjoy, and oil development will damage it all.

Reality No. 2: The phrases "Wildlife Refuge" or "Alaska Wilderness" make Americans think of postcards with lush green forests, rugged mountains and beautiful salmon streams. Places that adventurous families might want to visit some day. It is hard for people who have never seen it to envision the vastness of Alaska's North Slope, even harder to imagine the bleakness. Picture an area about the size of Washington state covered with wet muskeg growing over permanently frozen ground, riddled with millions of little lakes and ponds that serve as perfect mosquito breeding grounds. During the very brief, cool summer there are blankets of wildflowers but virtually no trees, no forests, no mountains for hundreds of miles in each direction. From the foothills of the Brooks Range to the shores of the Arctic Ocean, this is what most visitors would consider barren country.

Don't get me wrong, there is a kind of beauty here, but not the kind people think of when they hear those magic words "Alaskan Wilderness".

The caribou do roam free, there are bears and foxes and lots of migratory birds. I have camped on the North Slope, covered in mosquito netting day and night. Anyone can drive the remote Dalton Highway, camp on the vast tundra and be unaffected by drilling. Oil development in ANWR would impact a tiny section of this immense country. The footprint would cover an area smaller than Dulles Airport! A little divot on the edge of a vast golf course.

The bottom line: Environmental watchdogs have made oil development in Alaska the most responsible of all resource extraction in our state. I have observed greedy Alaskans long enough to know that if oil revenues run out, entrepreneurs will find much more destructive ways to make money in the last frontier, and desperate legislators will approve it.

Clear cut logging, overfishing, mining with dangerous chemicals, toxic waste storage, Alaskans will figure out some other way to replace oil revenues. The most valuable thing that environmentalists can do for Alaska is to push for responsible development in all resource fields.

These actions can result in clean development we can live with, as witnessed at Prudhoe Bay.

Phyllice Bradner Matson has been active in environmental issues since her college days in California. She has been an advocate for responsible development during all of her 35 years in Alaska.

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