Burning Down the House to Roast the Pig

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By Julie Fox Gorte,
Board Member of the Endangered Species Coalition

Daniel Yergin, in the prologue to his book The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, notes that “no other business so starkly and extremely defines the meaning of risk and reward—and the profound impact of chance and fate.” Yes indeed—and how much more stark does it get than when we think of the tradeoff between condemning yet more species to the annals of permanent loss in order to gain somewhere between 0.4% and 1.2% of our daily consumption of oil—starting in 2018 or so, and peaking in 2028.

Nobody really knows how much oil is in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but even the most optimistic estimates put the figure below 15 billion barrels—for comparison, Americans consume approximately 20+ million barrels of oil every day. In short, if there were fairy dust that made all the recoverable oil on the currently-protected areas of Alaska’s north slope available to us right now, today, it would last the United States from January 1 this year to October 19 next year (assuming we were consuming oil at the daily rate predicted by the Department of Energy’s EIA in 2030). And for this dubious bounty, advocates of oil production from the protected part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are prepared to risk continued harm to the migratory waterfowl, the caribou, and finally to the polar bears—recently listed by a reluctant Administration as a threatened species, and considered by more objective sources as endangered.

A 2003 report from the National Academy of Sciences described the effects of existing oil and gas production and exploration on Alaska’s North Slope, including:

  • displacement of bowhead whales (already endangered);
  • an increase in predator densities resulting from human activity in the oil fields, which has reduced the reproductive success of several bird species (black brant, snow geese, eiders, and some shorebirds) to the point where reproduction is insufficient to offset mortality; and
  • reduction in the reproductive success of caribou.

There are many other dividends paid by current oil activity on the north slope, including a growing cohort of abandoned lands disturbed and in some cases contaminated by oil exploration and production; interference with subsistence hunting and fishing activities of many of the indigenous peoples of the area; losses of traditional culture (which the National Academies noted was “probably irreversible”), and compromised wildland and scenic values over large areas. And of course we must consider one of the primary reasons that the polar bears are dwindling: climate change. Pulling these 15 billion barrels (or however many) from the earth in this lovely, pristine, and precious corner of the earth will only exacerbate that; fossil fuel combustion is the culprit for the warming of the globe that has probably condemned polar bears to extinction, and is forecast to increase (or continue to increase) the severity and incidence of floods, storms, fires, and droughts, and raise sea levels by anywhere from a few feet to dozens of feet or more. For all this, we get enough oil to last us less than the amount of time Anne Boleyn was queen of England, if we used it all at once—starting a decade from now. Not much of a bargain.

The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti asked whether man must burn down his house to roast his pig, and there is nowhere a better example of the relevance of this question. While advocates of opening the off-limits areas of the Arctic Refuge to oil drilling often tout things like reduced dependence on foreign oil and reduced costs, it is wise to remember that what we’re really talking about is something on the order of 0.4% to 1.2% of world oil consumption and a reduction in the price of low-sulfur crude by $0.41 to $1.44 per barrel in 2026. By 2026, it is possible to envision the use of plug-in hybrids recharging from an electric grid increasingly powered by sun, wind, waves, and geothermal sources, which also has the beneficent effect of helping to liberate us from dependence on foreign oil without taking so much that is precious and irreplaceable away in exchange.

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2 comments on “Burning Down the House to Roast the Pig

  1. The determination that a barrel of oil would only drop at best a $1.44 comes from a study by the Department of Energy that was requested by Alaska Senator Ted Stevens. Congress’s Joint Economic Committee recently demonstrated (pdf) this would only result in the the price of gasoline going down about 4 cents per gallon. How could that be worth all the damage?

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