Some places in Alaska are simply too special to open up for oil drilling.
IN January, President Obama announced he will recommend that Congress permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska as a wilderness area.
His decision, which preserves the status quo by keeping oil rigs out of the refuge’s coastal plain, triggered howls of protests from the oil industry and its allies. The president, according to one Alaska politician, is putting “Alaska and America’s energy security in serious jeopardy.” U.S. lands in the state are being “locked up,” said another.
But this rhetoric doesn’t square with reality. The federal government has sold enough drilling rights on Alaska lands to cover the state of Delaware, but 99 percent of those lands are sitting idle, waiting for oil and gas companies to decide to develop them.
Offshore, the Obama administration’s latest drilling proposal puts more than 92 percent of the Arctic waters off the coast of Alaska on the table for potential oil and gas development. The proposal also would sensibly set aside nearshore areas relied upon by Alaska Natives for subsistence hunting and a wildlife “hot spot” in the Chukchi Sea called the Hanna Shoal.
With ample drilling opportunities already afforded to the oil and gas industry, we need not, and should not, spoil the pristine expanses of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or the most sensitive waters in the Arctic Ocean. Some places are simply too special to drill.
To be sure, Alaska is facing its biggest energy challenge in a decade. With oil prices falling, production from the Prudhoe Bay area sagging, and the state government’s revenues from oil and gas potentially collapsing, Alaska’s elected officials are under intense pressure to reverse their state’s economic fortunes.
Instead of scapegoating the federal government, however, now is the time to assess the reality of current energy markets and to build an energy plan for Alaska’s future.
That plan can and should involve responsible oil development, but Alaska has the opportunity to diversify both its energy portfolio and a state budget that is more than 90 percent reliant on oil revenue. In particular, state and federal leaders should place a top priority on bringing Alaska’s now-stranded natural-gas resources to an eager world market. With 35 trillion cubic feet of gas readily available in already-industrialized areas on the North Slope, Alaska could meet its own stateside need for energy and generate large profits. What is needed is a gas pipeline that would allow deliveries to energy-needy Alaskan cities and to a shipping terminal for export. Plans for such a pipeline are in the works, and the federal government should be an eager and willing partner to help make it happen.
Second, renewable energy can play a growing role in Alaska’s energy future. With its strong wind resources in coastal villages, round-the-clock solar energy availability during summer months, and ample biomass energy production opportunities in Southeast Alaska, Alaska’s renewable resources can offer affordable, reliable energy supplies in even the most remote parts of the state. Here, too, a federal and state partnership is developing small-scale, affordable renewable-energy systems that are replicable and scalable, potentially providing breakthrough energy opportunities for small villages throughout the Arctic, and the world.
Finally, when it comes to oil, state and federal leaders should take a realistic approach that incentivizes the industry to draw additional oil from existing industrialized fields, such as those in the Prudhoe Bay region. Advanced technologies that have unlocked oil deposits in the Lower 48, for example, can be applied to Alaska’s shale fields, which are concentrated on the prolific oil-rich state lands on the North Slope and do not extend into the Arctic Refuge.
On federal lands, the Obama administration has continued to offer ample opportunities for new drilling and has worked to improve coordination among federal agencies on Alaskan energy projects. The U.S. Interior Department, for example, recently greenlighted a major Conoco-Phillips project in an area west of Prudhoe Bay, known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, or NPR-A. And in each of the past five years, the Obama administration has offered a Connecticut-sized area within the NPR-A to the oil and gas industry for new leasing and development.
Alaska energy challenges cannot be solved overnight. Shell’s troubled 2012 drilling season was a stark reminder of the risks, dangers and expenses of drilling in frontier areas with limited infrastructure. What is needed now is not rhetoric or hubris, but realism and thoughtful leadership.