This section of DiscoverTheNetworks examines the issue of whether or not the United States should drill for oil and natural gas in its known natural reserves. Supporters point out that harnessing those reserves would help the U.S. become less dependent on foreign sources of energy, while critics contend that such undertakings would have severe environmental consequences.
One of the most significant oil and gas reserves in the United States exists in a 2,000-acre region (known as “Area 1002”) of northeastern Alaska’s 19 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Long recognized as the most promising untapped oil province in North America, Area 1002 was set aside for possible future energy exploration by a Democrat-controlled Congress in 1980. It is believed that the region contains at least 10.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Energy Department estimates suggest it could yield more than 800 million barrels of oil per year -- equal to roughly 40 percent of U.S. domestic oil production as of 2008, and exceeding by a wide margin America's daily imports from Saudi Arabia.
Since the 1980s, however, the radical environmental movement -- citing a concern for preserving ANWR’s “pristine” status -- have pressured Congress to forbid oil and gas exploration in the region. Greenpeace USA says that “America's Serengeti” would become “a wasteland of roads, pipelines, drilling platforms and oil spills,” further endangering wildlife that “is already gravely threatened by global warming.” The Natural Resources Defense Council exhorts legislators not to “trash an American treasure” by signing legislation that would permit drilling in ANWR. Former President Jimmy Carter adds, “The simple fact is, drilling is inherently incompatible with wilderness. The roar alone of road building, trucks, drilling, and generators would pollute the wild music of the Arctic, and be as out of place there as it would be in the heart of Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon."
In reality, ANWR's Area 1002 is a barren, frozen wasteland for much of the year. During its eight-month winter, temperatures drop as low as 70 degrees below zero. The region is shrouded in near-total darkness for five months, and for 56 days there is no sunlight at all. No trees live in this inhospitable region, and wildlife is present for only about six weeks each year.
Opponents of drilling warn that local caribou populations would suffer mass death as a result of any industrial intrusion by man. The same was said in the 1970s by opponents of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline (TAP), which became operative in 1977 and now transports heated oil south from Prudhoe Bay (located about 100 miles west of Area 1002). TAP is the most environmentally responsible oil field in the world. After TAP's inception, the caribou population in its vicinity increased from about 3,000 in the 1970s to more than 32,000 in 2009; animals have actively sought out, and thrived in, the heat radiating from the oil pipes. Not a single wildlife species has decreased in population at Prudhoe Bay since TAP became part of the landscape.
According to a November 2009 report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS):
"[I]f all our energy resources are added up and converted to a barrels of oil equivalent (BOE), the U.S. has the largest reserves in the world.... According to the CRS, the U.S. has 1,321 billion barrels of oil (or barrels of oil equivalent for other sources of energy) if you combine its recoverable natural gas, oil and coal reserves. Russia is close behind with 1,248 billion barrels BOE. Other energy-producing nations, including many that export oil to the U.S., lag behind."
As of March 2010, the Obama administration was poised to ban offshore oil drilling on the outer continental shelf until at least 2012 while seeking to promote more reliance on wind and solar power. Meanwhile, Russia was preparing to erect oil derricks off the Cuban coast. It had recently signed four contracts securing oil-exploration rights in Cuba’s economic zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
Then, on April 22, 2010, the BP Corporation's offshore oil-drilling platform in the Gulf, Deepwater Horizon, exploded and caused a massive leak that would send some 40,000 barrels of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico, creating an environmental crisis. Soon thereafter, President Obama announced that he was extending a moratorium on deep-water oil drilling in the Gulf. The action called for suspension of 33 exploratory drilling operations in the Gulf, as well as the cancellation or temporary suspension of pending lease sales and oil drilling in Virginia and the Arctic. The moratorium for the Gulf was eventually lifted in October 2010.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), too, has played a key role in derailing oil-exploration projects. In April 2011, for example, Shell Oil Company announced that an EPA Environmental Appeals Board decision to withhold critical air permits had forced Shell to scrap its plans to begin tapping the vast oil reserves (at least 27 million barrels) situated in U.S. territory in the Arctic Ocean off the northern coast of Alaska. Up to that time, Shell already had spent five years and nearly $4 billion (including $2.2 billion just for the leases) on its oil-exploration plans for the region. The EPA Appeals Board based its decision on the notion that the Arctic drill would emit greenhouse gases which would be hazardous for the people living in the vicinity. The closest village to where Shell proposed to drill was Kaktovik, Alaska -- a one-square mile village with 245 inhabitants, located 70 miles away.