ANWR drilling threatens Porcupine caribou — and vice-versa?
Thursday, August 09, 2018
If you follow the U.S. debate about oil drilling, then you have no doubt heard of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). This is because it is probably some of the most hotly contested oil-rich land in the United States, and it now looks as if oil development is inevitable there after a decades-long battle over the Refuge’s oil reserves.
Unless the fate of the beloved Porcupine caribou halts the oil development.
In December 2017, Congress officially opened ANWR up for drilling by passing a tax bill requiring the "federal government to hold at least two oil and gas lease sales in the next decade."
Trump officials have recently been in the news because concrete plans have emerged to explore the Refuge’s coastal plain. Supposedly, the Colorado based company SAExploration has been contracted to use "shaker machines" (diesel-powered equipment that causes land tremors) to explore for oil.
Within the Refuge, oil developers have set their sights on the coastal plain. This section is referred to as "Area 1002," and is rumored to have between 4.3 and 11.2 billion barrels of oil.
Founded in 1980, the Refuge is 19.3 million acres of wilderness that includes migratory birds from six continents, such as snow geese, reintroduced musk ox, and bears of all variety: black, grizzly, and polar.
Notable here is the fate of the Reserve’s Porcupine caribou, which migrate 1,500 miles through ANWR to end up at the coastal plain. This is the longest migration of any mammal on the planet, making disturbance of its migration pattern a sensitive topic for biologists and environmentalists.
Caribou calving, which takes place on the coast, can be disturbed, even if SAExploration uses large sleds and nonindustrial vehicles to conduct its oil explorations. People are concerned that testing will still cause irreparable harm. For example, invasive air strips must be built in the pristine wilderness to accommodate teams conducting oil exploration.
For now, the planned seismic testing will begin in December.
Issues like bear denning habitat and migrating birds and caribou keep this oil drilling debate alive. In fact, given how controversial the ANWR drilling project has been for decades, the fact that oil developers have made serious progress there is cause for reflection on our fragile ecological future.
Of interest is the fact that initially President Trump did not pay much attention to ANWR until he learned that other U.S. presidents, including Ronald Reagan, failed to conduct drilling there. Then it became a matter of principle.
If all goes as planned, the days of ANWR’s preservation as nonextracted wilderness are numbered. It is estimated that Area 1002 oil can generate billions in federal revenue in the next decade.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), drilling in ANWR could increase U.S. oil production from 2 billion and 5.1 billion barrels of oil by 2050.
The last resource survey of ANWR was conducted in 1998, and the methods — "two-dimensional seismic and early 80’s computing power" — used are now considered outdated. The new testing would release data to confirm all this financial speculation.
Once we have the data, the moral question about the value of preserved wilderness lingers.
To further complicate matters, Porcupine caribou remain protected from drilling by a 1987 agreement between Canada and the U.S. — further complicating the political terrain here. Specifically, Alaskan and Canadian native Gwich’in communities have hunted the caribou for centuries.
A Canadian Embassy spokesperson has stated that "the federal, territorial and Indigenous governments in Canada are united in their commitment to conservation of the herd and its habitat."
Given the international significance of the Porcupine caribou, the ANWR drilling controversy has not be put to rest, and it may even be getting more heated in the weeks and months ahead.
Can the fate of Porcupine caribou halt ANWR drilling? Stay tuned.
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