Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: The original Fake News

The New York Times reported earlier this month that the Department of Interior is proposing to lift restrictions on seismic studies in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).  Predictably, this has caused the environmental community to become apoplectic.  One enviro called the decision, which only involves finding out how much oil and gas might exist in an area called 1002, “reckless and irresponsible.”  Another said “the arctic is the holy grail.”

Since the early 1980s, potential drilling in ANWR has been the equivalent of a casus belli for the environmental community.  The claims that they have made about damage and harm to wildlife have been extreme and not credible given the experience at Prudhoe Bay where wildlife has flourished.  Pictures of flowers, rabbits and other wildlife in fields of grass are designed to have an emotional impact by implying that is what is at risk from drilling. Those pictures are what Daniel Boorstin termed pseudo-events and what is now called fake news.  Those pictures are not of the area where drilling would take place.  They are of an area near the Brooks Range which is about 100 miles away.


ANWR is roughly 32,000 square miles in size.  The size of the 1002 area where drilling would take place is roughly 19 square miles.  To provide a clearer picture and comparison, ANWR is about the size of South Carolina and 1002 the size of Dulles Airport.  Can any reasonable person really believe that drilling in such a small area would be environmentally devastating?  Those assertions are mind boggling.

Drilling, if it eventually takes place, would be on the coastal plain which as anyone who has been there knows is a frozen desert.  Although Interior proposes seismic research, many may not know or recall that one well has already been drilled there.  In 2001, Chevron drilled an exploratory well at the edge of the coastal plain.  Very few know the results of that drilling.  It is one of our best kept secrets.  Even Wiki-Leaks doesn’t know.  That may suggest that the results were not encouraging but the results from one well are not conclusive.  Before the oil at Prudhoe Bay was discovered, a number of dry holes had been drilled and there was talk of abandoning the enterprise as a result.

Even if the seismic tests are promising, drilling would not be immediate, assuming Congressional approval.  Permitting and environmental impact analysis could take 7-12 years according to an EIA assessment in the early 2000s.  Companies interested in bidding for drilling rights would base their decision on their best estimates of crude oil prices over a 20-30 year period.  That is a tough calculus to make given the abundance of shale oil, potential advances in alternative energy technologies, and political risk.

Opposition to obtaining information represents a view that ignorance is better than knowledge. Indeed, it is always be better to err on the side of too much knowledge than too little.  Future energy policy will be better informed if we are smarter.




Founder and president of Solutions Consulting which focuses on public policy issues, strategic planning, and strategic communications.

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