Will technology lead to ANWR drilling?

Here’s a hoot. Call it thinking “outside the box,” or, more specifically, thinking outside the boundaries drawn by Congress. Maybe we can drill for oil and gas in the 1002 lands in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska from outside the refuge.

The technology is directional drilling, which the oil and gas industry has perfected over the past decade or so. It’s possible to stand off from an area, miles away, and send the snaking drill bit into the oil-bearing strata. The oil industry has long said it could put up a drill rig in Maryland and explore for oil and gas under the White House. This is not science fiction, but industry fact.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has offered a bill in the Senate to allow directional drilling into the oil-rich coastal plain, with the rigs located outside the limits of the territory laid out in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. The legislation ruled oil and gas exploration out of bounds for most of the 19-million-acre ANWR, located in northeastern Alaska close to the Canadian border, but left open the possibility drilling in a 1.5 million acre coastal area, where the evidence of large reserves of oil and gas are unmistakable. Congress could authorize exploration and development in this area, but has not for nearly 30 years.

ANWR drilling has become a shibboleth for the environmental movement in the U.S., much as has global warming. Opposition to ANWR drilling, for many greens, defines their greenness.

Now, environmental groups opposed to ANWR drilling are quaking in their hiking boots over the prospect that their arguments about drilling in the “pristine” ANWR wilderness may be overcome by technology. They have prevented the exploitation of energy resources from the 1002 lands for over 20 years.

Today, the greens may be facing the greatest challenge to drilling yet, at the hands of a Democratic administration.

Historically, Republicans have pushed for ANWR drilling, and the greenest element of the Democrats have resisted.
The Obama administration, while skeptical, says it is willing to consider the idea of directional drilling into ANWR.

In a telephone press conference this week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he’s open to directional drilling from outside the boundaries into ANWR if it can be demonstrated to be environmentally sound. Salazar expressed doubts, observing, “Most of what I’ve seen up to this point is it would not be possible to do that.”

Salazar is scheduled to meet with oil industry officials soon to discuss the Obama administration’s views about the oil business. He says he’s going to reassure them that the administration is not anti-oil.

The meeting will undoubtedly touch on the long-stalemated ANWR drilling issue. But, unlike earlier discussions among the industry, the White House, and Congress, there is less urgency today. Oil prices are a fifth of what they were at the peak last summer, meaning the oil industry is less frantic about tapping the ANWR coastal plains reserves, and the administration feels less pressure to cave into industry desires in the face of skyrocketing gasoline prices.

As for the environmental arguments about preserving the pristine nature of ANWR, both the industry and the White House should agree that these are bogus. I’ve been to the area, including spending time at Kaktovic, the Inupiat town on the edge of the coastal 1002 lands. There is nothing approaching wilderness in those lands.

It’s worth noting that most of the photographs we see from groups opposed to drilling in Alaska involve the photographer standing on the coastal plain, shooting south into the gorgeous Brooks Range. Nobody has proposed drilling in the Brooks Range, way out of the coastal area Congress set aside for exploration in the Alaska lands law.
The 1002 lands, by contrast, are flat and featureless, pockmarked with thousands of small, black-fly-harboring ponds. Abandoned skimobiles litter the landscape. Looking north toward Kaktovic shows the village, its airstrip, and what looks likes a 1950s dual-screen drive-in-movie theatre. That’s the remnant of a “distant early warning line” radar base from the days of the cold war. Pristine wilderness? I don’t think so.

I’ve argued for 15 years that the question about drilling in ANWR is not about energy – the reserves are significant but not game-changing – nor about the environment – there’s no evidence of significant environmental damage from oil production on the North Slope. Rather, it’s a culture war between the industry and the greens, with the victim the locals, the Eskimos who depend on revenues from oil flowing through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System to keep them living in the modern world. If TAPS empties, they are doomed to the cold and brutish life they escaped when big oil came to Alaska.