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Dexter Perkins, Grand Forks, column: Arctic Refuge drilling? The answer remains no

By Dexter Perkins GRAND FORKS -- The largest wildlife refuge in the U.S., the Arctic Refuge, is home to more than 250 species of wildlife, including wolves, grizzlies, caribou and migratory birds. The Arctic Refuge is unique among our nation's wi...

By Dexter Perkins

GRAND FORKS -- The largest wildlife refuge in the U.S., the Arctic Refuge, is home to more than 250 species of wildlife, including wolves, grizzlies, caribou and migratory birds. The Arctic Refuge is unique among our nation's wildlife refuges because wilderness protection was established as one of its primary purposes when it was first created.

Large-scale ecological and evolutionary processes continue there, free from human control or manipulation -- a phenomenon found in few places on our planet. I know, because I have been there.

Why are the oil industry and their congressional allies so intent on changing the wildlife refuge into an oil field?

When compared with the U.S. oil consumption, oil that might be produced in the Refuge is insignificant. According to the government's Energy Information Administration, speculative oil from the entire Arctic Refuge at peak production -- which would last only about two years -- would contribute less than 4 percent to our nation's supply of oil. Nonetheless, the oil industry sees the refuge as one of their last best hopes to make significant profits by developing public lands.

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So, today we have yet another fight in Congress over yet another Arctic Refuge drilling bill. This latest one is a "Trojan Horse" intent on handing over the refuge's biological heart -- the Coastal Plain -- to the oil industry. Surprisingly, the proposers, Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Mark Begich, D-Alaska, claim that if Senate Bill 503 becomes law, "those concerned about the impact to wilderness will be able to enjoy and preserve the refuge exactly as it is today."

How would this happen? Through the technology of horizontal drilling.

The senators claim that if horizontal drilling is allowed on the Coastal Plain, there will be no surface occupancy and "no trace that we were ever there." These claims are simply untrue. This bill authorizes surface seismic and exploratory drilling activities, both of which would be devastating to the vast wildlife resources of the Coastal Plain.

What the senators also don't mention is that horizontal wells require the same infrastructure and have the same environmental impacts as conventional wells -- including busy airports, permanent gravel roads and pipelines. As documented by the National Academy of Sciences, the impacts of development extend well beyond the direct footprint or the place where the drill touches the ground.

What's more, the bill waives key environmental laws. Currently, the Arctic Refuge is protected and managed as a national wildlife refuge. The bill would remove the most important safeguards for this fragile wild land by waiving the protections of the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Wildlife Refuge Administration Act.

If Murkowski and Begich are so confident that the Arctic Refuge will remain unscathed under the auspices of this bill, why the need to waive environmental safeguards? Especially since oil and gas operations on Alaska's North Slope have a dismal record of oil spills, air pollution and the discharge of waste water and toxins into the environment.

An average of 453 spills occurs annually on Alaska's North Slope, and more than 2.7 million gallons of toxic substance have been spilled since 1996.

As the 50th anniversary of the Arctic Refuge draws near, we should be celebrating one of our nation's greatest natural treasures by giving it permanent protection from development. Until this happens, the pro-drilling forces in Congress will continue to try to find new ways to mar the pristine, untouched wildness of the Arctic Refuge forever.

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Perkins is a professor of geology at UND.

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