Free Term Paper on Oil Drilling and the Environment: The Case of ANWR

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is a vast, protected wildlife habitat in Alaska where oil and natural gas have been found. Because of this, environmentalists representing the interests of pristine wilderness and endangered species are pitted against oil and gas corporations. Federal, state, tribal, and community interests are heavily involved. For many years there have been contentious legislative sessions in Alaska and Washington, D.C., over drilling for oil in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge and other parts of Alaska. The issues in this controversy may well end up being addressed in the courtrooms.


I. Political Dimensions

II. Background

III. Environmental Characteristics

IV. Oil’s Industrial Impact

V. Oil Operations and the Air

VI. Hazardous Waste and Its Impacts on Water and Wetlands

VII. Current and Past Controversial Policies

VIII. Conclusion

Political Dimensions

ANWR Oil DrillingIn June 2010, Tea Party Libertarian activist Sarah Palin, who resigned as Alaska’s governor shortly after a failed attempt at the vice presidency, blamed environmentalists’ tactics for British Petroleum’s massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Palin contended that the ban on oil drilling in pristine areas such as the ANWR and shallow onshore waters forced the United States to pursue risky deep-ocean drilling for economic purposes.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), which has authority over the ANWR, is currently revising its Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the refuge. This multiyear effort involves much public comment officially presented during public hearings before elected officials.

The plan’s intent is to guide stewardship of the land for the next 15 years or more. It will include requiring a wilderness review of the entire refuge. Researchers with FWS currently are studying the Smith’s longspur, a rare bird making its home in the refuge. Changing climate is causing large parts of the refuge to be redefined by birds, fish, and mammals that did not make their home there until recently. For example, robins have appeared in northern Alaska for the first time, as have other warm-weather species.

In May 2010, the fight over oil drilling in the ANWR heated up at a hearing in Anchorage over the possibility that the FWS’s new management plan could put the refuge and its billions of barrels of crude off limits for good. If the ANWR is designated as wilderness by the FWS, no drilling for oil could occur there. The FWS expects to finalize the plan in 2012.

For decades, ANWR has been a point of contention between environmentalists— who oppose drilling there—and oil companies and Alaska’s elected and appointed officials, who see money in their pockets from tapping ANWR’s oil, although publicly they will argue for drilling as a means of relief from foreign oil dependency.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the presidency of George W. Bush opposed drilling in ANWR, arguing instead that increasing the minimum gas mileage requirement for vehicles by at least three miles per gallon would eliminate U.S. dependence on foreign oil. (Hybrid vehicles that use a combination of gasoline and electricity for fuel have gone beyond the three-mile increase, with further fuel efficiencies required by the Obama administration.) U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich contend that it is a waste of taxpayer dollars to investigate whether to make the ANWR forever wild. Pamela Miller of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, on the other hand, has said that what is needed is to consider the environmental disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. This is not the time, says Miller, to be “contemplating BP waltzing into our nation’s premier wilderness area.”


Federal lands in Alaska are vast. Roads and people are scarce. Wildlife abounds, unseen by human eyes. The weather can stop most human activities for days at a time, also making travel uncomfortable, risky, and expensive. Economic development around most types of activities such as agribusiness, oil or mineral drilling, logging, tourism, and shipping is equally constrained by the cold, inclement weather and the expense of dealing with it. Without good roads and transportation infrastructure, most economic development suffers, making the prospect of such improvements attractive to many Alaskan communities. However, the federal government was and is the largest landowner and has exerted its power to create and protect its interests.

Ever since Alaska was recognized and accepted by the United States as a state, environmental protection and natural resource use have been at odds. Although Alaska has seemingly limitless natural resources, these exist in fragile tundra and coastal environments. Without roads, logging, mining, or any substantial human development is very difficult. Indigenous peoples of Alaska have, in the past, been self-sufficient, subsisting on the land and water. Subsistence rights to fish, game, and plants as well as ceremonial rights to this food are very important to many indigenous peoples, including bands and tribes in the United States. Therefore Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (1980) and established the ANWR. At that time Congress specifically avoided a decision regarding future management of the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain. The controversy pitting the area’s potential oil and gas resources against its importance as wildlife habitat, represented by well-organized environmental interests, was looming large then.

This was the not the first or last experience pitting oil companies against environmentalists, state interests in economic development against federal interests in preserving wilderness areas, and other opposing interests. Numerous wells have since been drilled and oil fields discovered near the ANWR. Also, the characteristics of the ecosystem and measures of environmental impacts to date have been documented in very similar places nearby.

Global warming and climate change greatly affect this particular controversy. Most scientists agree that for every one degree of global warming, the Arctic and Antarctica will warm up by three degrees. The planet has been warming and the Arctic ice is melting. In September 2004 the polar ice cap receded 160 miles away from Alaska’s north coast, creating more and more open water. This has had dramatic environmental impacts in the Arctic because many species from plankton to polar bears follow the ice for survival. The implications of global warming for the ANWR oil-drilling controversy are developing. Environmentalists think such development may make an already sensitive ecosystem even more sensitive. Mosquitoes are now seen further north than ever before. They attack nesting birds that do not leave the nest for long periods and have never been exposed to mosquitoes before. There are many anecdotal reports of species impacts in the Arctic.

The focus of the controversy about oil drilling in the ANWR is its coastal plain. It is a 25-mile band of tundra wetlands that is of key interest to both oil interests and environmentalists. This area provides important nursing areas for Arctic wildlife. Damaged tundra takes a long time to recover and is generally considered a sensitive ecosystem. Tundra is very sensitive to many of the activities around oil drilling. The wetlands, where food can be moved around the coast efficiently, can also allow the movement of hazardous materials in the same way.

But the refuge’s coastal plain also contains oil. Exactly how much and where is a subject of dispute. Controversies about the sensitive ecological character of the refuge; the amount, kind, and accessibility of oil that lies beneath it; and the environmental impact that oil development would have on it all abound. The primary concern about its impact is the threat to species and other parts of the ecosystem.

Environmental Characteristics

ANWR’s brutal winters and glorious summers characterize its seasonal extremes. Given its inaccessibility to humans, many species of wildlife thrive here. The ANWR is located between the rugged Brooks Mountain Range and the Beaufort Sea in northeast Alaska. This large area, with ecotones ranging from mountains to the coastal plain, allows many species to adapt to seasonal extremes. The seasonal migration of the caribou plays a large part in the food chain here.

The coastal plain’s rich ecosystem is easily affected by both local and global environmental forces. The ANWR’s coastal plain alone supports almost 200 wildlife species, including polar bears, musk oxen, fish, and caribou. Every year, millions of tundra swans, snowy owls, eider ducks, and other birds migrate to the coastal plain to nest, raise their off spring, molt, and feed. Other species give birth there, and many others migrate through the area.

Some environmental scientists consider the coastal plain to be the biological heart of the entire refuge. They maintain that any oil drilling in the refuge would irreparably harm the wildlife by destroying this unique habitat. Oil development, with its drilling, road building, water and air emissions, noise, and waste — could irreparably degrade this pristine, fragile wilderness. The fact that the plan involves exploration and drilling for oil and gas, the very substances that cause so much pollution, heightens the controversy. Environmental groups are making a stand because this is one of last remaining untouched wilderness areas of this type in the United States.

Oil’s Industrial Impact

When the Exxon Valdez spilled millions of gallons of fresh black crude oil into the healthy, clear waters of Prudhoe Bay, a pristine area—known for its rich fisheries and traditional native lifestyle, a way of life that had sustained people and wildlife for hundreds of years—disappeared. The oil spill of the Valdez, its environmental impacts, and subsequent protracted litigation are well known. Environmentalists point to other nearby similar areas that have allowed oil development, arguing that the environmental impacts in the ANWR are not worth the oil. They point to the controversial Alaskan North Slope, where oil extraction occurs on a massive scale, as well as to the 2010 BP– Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Alaskan North Slope was once part of the largest intact wilderness area in the United States. It is similar to the ANWR. With controversy, the North Slope was opened up to oil drilling and a pipeline was built, which continues to leak through Alaska and Canada as it brings oil to the United States.

Alaska’s North Slope oil operations expanded. This enterprise now comprises one of the world’s largest industrial complexes. The oil operations and transportation infrastructure are vast, covering about 1,000 square miles of land. Not so long ago, most of this land and environment was wilderness, as the ANWR is now. There are oilfields, oil tankers, a few basic oil refineries, oil storage, and oil spills. Roads and airstrips are often built. These activities drastically increase environmental impacts in wild areas.

On the Alaskan North Slope, Native Americans have important interests, and some locations there are considered sacred by them. Industrial development land rights, allegedly existing for the public good, may extend to a limited set of natural resources, such as timber or seasonal harvesting. Wilderness destruction has sometimes moved ahead without protection for the land held sacred by traditional residents.

Sometimes local communities are in favor of infrastructure development as a means of economic development, despite the environmental consequences. The scale of industrial operations here affects all these interests. Prudhoe Bay and 26 other oilfields on the Alaskan North Slope include the following:

  • 28 oil production plants, gas processing facilities, and seawater treatment and power plants
  • 38 gravel mines
  • 223 production and exploratory gravel drill pads
  • 500 miles of roads
  • 1,800 miles of pipelines
  • 4,800 exploration and production wells

This large-scale industrial operation is taking place in a comparably fragile region much like the ANWR. In the modern context of global warming and climate change, the caribou that play such an important role are affected by the retreating ice. They cannot feed on the lichen on rocks in places formerly covered by ice. Their migratory route is being altered. The same is true for many species. The environmental impact alone is a controversy now fueling the ANWR controversy. Ecosystem resiliency is defined as the length of time it takes an ecosystem to recover from stress. Because of the same factors that affect the ANWR, the North Slope is considered fragile.

The crucial factors are a short, intense summer growing season, bitter cold in the long winter, poor soils, and permafrost. The North Slope, like ANWR today, was originally a wildlife area with little human intrusion. Environmentalists contend that any physical disturbance to the land—such as roads, oil spills, and drilling—has long-term, perhaps irreparable environmental impacts. The National Academy of Sciences has concluded with regard to the North Slope that “it is unlikely that the most disturbed habitat will ever be restored and the damage to more than 9,000 acres by oilfield roads and gravel pads is likely to remain for centuries.” Many environmentalists contend that the cumulative impacts of oil development have affected Prudhoe Bay negatively. Environmentalists use the North Slope experience to argue for the protection of the ANWR. They use it to show that it is impossible to drill for oil without irreversible environmental consequences.

Of particular concern is spilled oil and other petrochemical waste products from engine maintenance. According to environmentalists, oil operations spill tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil and other hazardous materials on the North Slope every year. Environmentalists worry that not all spills are reported, as most industry environmental impact information is self-reported. Spills can occur when companies are drilling for new oil, storing it, and transporting it. Conditions for all these activities can be physically rough in Alaska. Weather conditions can become severe for days at a time, making them conducive to spills. According to industry and government reports, from 1996 to 2004, there were at least 4,530 spills on the North Slope of more than 1.9 million gallons of diesel fuel, oil, acid, biocide, ethylene glycol, drilling fluid, and other materials. Some of these chemicals can rapidly percolate, or move through, soil to reach water tables. Conditions in Alaska, particularly in the northern reaches of Alaska, can make it difficult to contain and clean up a spill of any size.

Oil Operations and the Air

Coal-burning power plants and petrochemical refineries emit large quantities of regulated pollutants into the air. Diesel generators and vehicles, trucks, and airplanes also emit pollutants. According to the Toxics Release Inventory, oil operations on Alaska’s North Slope emit more than 70,000 tons of nitrogen oxides a year. Sulfur and nitrogen are air pollutants, which contribute to smog and acid rain. North Slope oil operations also release other pollutants, which are major contributors to air pollution. Each year, they admit to emitting 7 to 40 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and 24,000 to 114,000 metric tons of methane in the North Slope. This is probably within the terms of their air permit and may exclude de minimus or fugitive emissions.

Emissions caused by natural disasters such as hurricanes and tsunamis are also exempt. Sustainability advocates point out that the methane emissions do not include the methane released because of the melted permafrost. All these impacts are in the context of larger controversies such as global warming and climate change, which also affect sensitive Alaskan ecosystems. Emissions will be higher in the ANWR as North Slope oil is transported by tanker from the site to a refinery. It is refined and distributed off the drilling site. ANWR oil and gas could still be refined on site if oil exploration and drilling is approved.

Airborne pollution from Prudhoe Bay has been detected as far away as Barrow, Alaska, about 200 miles distant. The environmental impact of industrial oil operations on the North Slope is widespread. The Canadian government has experimented with oil companies and cumulative impacts research in neighboring northern Alberta. In the sensitive Arctic environment of northern Alberta, the government has allowed drilling and refining operations on the condition that the involved companies account for all impacts, including cumulative impacts. Because vast areas of Alaska are undeveloped, the potential exists for a large environmental impact before it can be discovered or contained, as in BP’s Gulf of Mexico disaster. (In the latter case, the company did not have sufficient well-capping measures in place to prevent the catastrophe that occurred, and the well leaked 60,000 barrels per day for two days before it was discovered. By the end of the nearly three-month period during which the leak was active, close to 5 million barrels of crude had been discharged into the gulf.)

Hazardous Waste and Its Impacts on Water and Wetlands

Drilling for oil includes digging large pits in the ground. As these pits become obsolete, they are used as waste dumps. Pits holding millions of gallons of wastes from oil and gas drilling and exploration can still be found all over the North Slope. These pits were a stew of toxic chemicals, many with long-lasting environmental impacts in any ecosystem. Deep well injection, as this waste disposal method is called, was stopped because of its impact on underground aquifers. As aquifers dry up, as around San Antonio, Texas, they pull in the waste injected in deep wells.

Of the known and undisputed pit sites, more than 100 remain to be cleaned. Clean is a relative term. In this case, it generally means pumping out the toxic materials and removing them for treatment as hazardous waste. Clean does not mean restoring the ecological integrity of the place. This is why some environmentalists claim that the impacts of oil exploration and drilling cannot be mitigated and it should therefore not be allowed. There could be many more. Many of the sites that have already been cleaned had pervasive environmental impacts because the wastes had migrated into the tundra and killed it. The oil company pit sites contain a variety of toxic materials and hazardous chemicals. Typically, they include acids, lead, pesticides, solvents, diesel fuel, caustics, corrosives, and petroleum hydrocarbons. If the pit sites are not adequately closed, they can become illegal sites for more trash.

This second wave of trash can include vehicles, appliances, batteries, tires, and pesticides. Oil industry trade groups point out that deep well injection has been an accepted method of waste disposal for oil operations. It was the prevailing practice in Texas and Alaska for many years. Environmentalists respond by noting that the industry may have been acting within the bounds of its permits, but the environmental impacts are still too large. Politically, the oil operations expanded revenue for the state and built some infrastructure in a large state with a low population. Communities differ greatly on aspects of this controversy. State environmental agencies do not strictly or overzealously enforce environmental laws against large corporations. In fact, Alaska voluntarily relinquished its control of the Hazardous Waste Cleanup Program, and the EPA took it over.

This aspect of the ANWR controversy, the hazardous waste cleanup, is an issue for state and federal environmental agencies. Most state environmental agencies get most of their revenue from the federal environmental agencies such as the EPA. However, in federally mandated environmental programs, such as the Clean Air Act, the states must either do it to some minimal standards or the EPA will do for them. In most instances states are free to choose the best method to meet the federally mandated result. However, in Alaska results were not meeting federal standards. This confrontation heightens the intensity of the ANWR controversy for industry, community, and environmental interests. It is seen by some as a test of federal sovereignty over states rights, which removes some of the environmental issues from the discussion. Similar tussles between federal, state, and corporate entities regarding duties and responsibilities occurred in the case of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico (until, that is, the federal government, on June 16, 2010, made clear that BP was responsible for shouldering the full cost of the cleanup and that the cleanup would be done to EPA standards).

If oil drilling is allowed in the ANWR, then more impacts to the environment from hazardous and toxic waste can be expected. Environmentalists point out that most past mitigation efforts were not successful or mandatory. There is no legal requirement to mitigate the impacts of mitigation, which could themselves be considerable in large-scale projects.

Current and Past Controversial Policies

Generally, the George W. Bush administration facilitated processes for the energy industry to drill for oil and gas in many sensitive public lands. Across the western United States, federal agencies such as the Department of the Interior leased these areas for oil and gas development. The tenants are oil and gas companies setting up operations on millions of acres of previously wild and open federally owned land. Proponents of this change in public policy contend that there is an energy crunch and that, with rising gas prices, the country needs to access to all possible U.S. oil sources. This position goes against everything two major social movements in the United States have sought to protect: wilderness. The Romantic Movement and the American Transcendentalists fought industrialists and politicians in the 1800s to protect and conserve wilderness. It provides peace, rapture and restores the soul, they argued. The National Park System resulted from their efforts, and state parks followed along with wilderness protection areas such as the Adirondacks in New York State, overwhelmingly voted to stay forever wild by state residents.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Bush administration granted faster, almost pro forma, drilling approvals for requests to drill for oil on public lands. They also relaxed rules and policies to make it easier for oil interests to drill on public lands such as in national parks. In addition to reducing the number of environmental restrictions, they also reduced the amount of royalty payments companies paid to the government if oil was tapped on public land, thereby allowing private interests to take in more money for themselves without honoring their full obligation to the country or its citizens. (In the aftermath of the BP–Deepwater Horizon spill, similar “sweetheart deals” were discovered to have been in place for companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico under the now defunct Minerals Management Service.)

During the Bush administration, officials from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Interior Department agency that manages the vast majority of federal lands and onshore energy resources, directed field staff to expand access to public lands for energy development and to speed related environmental reviews. BLM data show that the number of leases for oil, gas, and coal mining on public lands increased by 51 percent between 2000 and 2003—from 2.6 million acres to more than 5 million acres. The BLM has also repeatedly suspended seasonal closures designed to protect wildlife and is rushing to update numerous western land use plans to permit even more leasing and drilling. In the interior West, where most of the nation’s oil and gas resources lie, more than 90 percent of BLM-managed land is already open for energy leasing and development.

There is much controversy about how much oil exists in ANWR. Critics say that if it were the only source, it would yield less than a six-month supply of oil. Supporters of drilling, based on national security, say that all resources need to be marshaled. Overreliance on foreign oil sources leaves us dependent on other countries and vulnerable while at war, proponents of drilling contend. The United States is a large consumer of oil. As a country it has 5 percent of the world’s population but consumes almost 25 percent of all the oil produced worldwide every year. The United States has only 3 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, making drilling in the ANWR a higher-stakes battlefield. Federal agencies have assessed the issue. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that the amount of oil that might be recovered and profitably brought to market from the refuge’s coastal plain is only 5.4 billion barrels, based on the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) average forecast price of $28 a barrel over the next 20 years.

At $40 per barrel, the USGS estimates that there would be only 6.7 billion barrels that could be profitably brought to market from the coastline reserves. The United States uses about 7.3 billion barrels of oil per year. Drilling proponents claim that at least 16 billion barrels of oil could be recovered from the refuge’s coastal plain. They point out that there could be recoverable oil and gas in other parts near the coastal plain.

But the USGS says there is less than a 5 percent possibility that the coastal plain and adjacent areas contain that much recoverable oil. They maintain that only a small part of that oil could be economically produced and transported to markets. Drilling proponents are accused of ignoring the fact that the costs of exploration, production, and transportation in the Arctic are substantially higher than in many other regions of the world. Shipping, pipelines, and rail are all challenged by rough weather, earthquake-prone landscapes, and wilderness conditions. Extreme weather conditions and long distances to market would make much of that oil too expensive to produce at current market conditions.

Drilling supporters claim that once the roads are built and the infrastructure is set up, costs will decrease, and oil demand is almost always increasing. They point out that the North American continental natural gas pipeline is expanding and that technology may make oil transport cheaper and safer for people and the environment. They also consider global warming to have one positive impact in that shipping lanes will be more reliably open because of the receding ice. The ice has drastically receded at the coastal plain in ANWR.

To many rural Alaskan communities, getting infrastructure and the promise of an oil-company job are large benefits. With new roads, airstrips, and ports, other forms of economic development would be able to occur. Tourism is a growing industry without the environmental impacts of oil drilling but requires a safe transportation network. The area’s Inupiat Eskimo and Gwich’in Athabaskan-speaking Native American inhabitants are actively involved in the controversy. Their respective views are significantly shaped by the nature of their relationship to the economy, the land, and its natural resources. Some of the oil reserves are on tribal lands. Some tribes are in favor, some are divided, and others are against oil exploration.


The environmental effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989, are still visible on the land and in the wildlife there. Just as Exxon was caught unprepared for an emergency, so BP is wearing those shoes today. While scientists try proven techniques to deal with the situation, one problem persists: they have never been tried in 5,000 feet of water. How was the oil industry allowed to build off shore rigs without a set of proven remediation tools in place appropriate to the environment in which it was working? Lisa Jackson, administrator for the EPA, observed that the oil industry has improved its techniques for getting oil out of the ground but not its skill at containing it. Seemingly, BP had no plan for a worst-case scenario. Looking at the industry running through the same set of solutions it did in 1979 when a well blew up in the Bay of Campeche off of Mexico, the solution seems to be to change the way the industry calculates risks. New regulations that will fill technological gaps revealed by the BP–Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico are expected.

The controversy over drilling in the ANWR swirls around questions of how much oil is there and whether any drilling at all is acceptable in a pristine wilderness area. It may be that there is more oil and much more gas there than currently known. It may also be that oil cannot be reached without irreversible environmental impacts. As other global petrochemical resources dry up, the pressure to drill for oil and gas in the ANWR will increase.

Petrochemical controversies around protected parts of nature also affect other controversies. Declining air quality from burning petrochemicals touches all aspects of this controversy, from local neighborhoods, tribes, and communities to global warming concerns. Political concerns about oil company profits right after Hurricane Katrina and all during the Mideast conflicts also inflame oil drilling issues in the Arctic. The earlier controversy concerning North Slope oil exploration and drilling provided evidence of severe environmental impacts. The potential for future controversy in ANWR drilling is very great.


Robert William Collin and Debra Ann Schwartz



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