Senate to consider Arctic oil drilling

Published August 1, 2000

Saying it is vital for America to produce more of its own energy in order to avoid roller-coaster price shocks to its economy, Alaska Senators Frank Murkowski and Ted Stevens have introduced legislation that would open a part of the Arctic coastal plain to oil and gas exploration and development.

The National Energy Security Act of 2000 (S. 2557) would “decrease America’s dependence on foreign oil sources to 50 percent by the year 2010,” according to Murkowski. Murkowski and Stevens have attracted 33 other cosponsors for the bill, including Trent Lott (R-Mississippi).

“In America right now,” Murkowski noted, “homeowners are struggling to pay their heating oil bills, truckers are fighting to stay in business, and motorists this spring may well be boiling over prices at the pump. All of these woes are the direct result of America becoming more dependent on foreign energy.”

The U.S. is currently importing 55 percent of the crude oil it uses, said Murkowski. In 1973, during the Arab oil embargo, only 36 percent of the country’s crude oil supplies were imported. The Department of Energy predicts that by 2020 the U.S. will be importing 64 percent of its petroleum.

Murkowski and Stevens would open to oil exploration less than one-tenth of the 19 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), “the largest unexplored, potentially productive geologic onshore basin in the United States,” according to the Energy Information Administration. In May, the Energy Information Administration reported ANWR could hold as much as 16 billion barrels of oil–more than three times the amoutn previously thought.

Environmental groups say oil exploration would destroy the last pristine wilderness along Alaska’s coast. Not so, says Murkowski. “The truth is that only 10 percent of the whole 1,100-mile Arctic coastal plain in Alaska is open to oil exploration. Estimates are a major oil field could be developed using modern technology affecting only a tiny 2,000-acre sliver of the 1.5 million-acre Arctic coastal plain–one-hundredth of a percent of the entire 19 million-acre area.”

Murkowski also points out that increasing oil imports themselves pose a major environmental threat. “By 2020,” he calculated, “more than 30 giant supertankers, each loaded with 500,000 barrels of crude oil, will have to dock at U.S. ports every day. Conservatively more than 10,000 ships–most foreign-flagged–will have to pass our coastlines and unload oil in our harbors yearly. That creates greater environmental risk than developing our own petroleum resources.”

Athan Manuel of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s Arctic Wilderness Campaign disagreed. “Drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has nothing to do with national energy security. Senator Murkowski’s bill . . . is more about financial security for Big Oil than it is about national energy security.” Other opponents warn oil drilling would endanger caribou or polar bears.

Murkowski responded to those concerns, pointing out that the Central Arctic Caribou herd has more than tripled in size in roughly two decades, from 6,000 animals in 1978 to 19,700 today. Caribou in the region outnumber people three to two. The polar bear population in Alaska is estimated at 2,000 animals, with only 15 polar bear dens positively identified in the entire coastal plan in an 11-year period.

S. 2557 also contains provisions protecting the region’s wildlife populations. The bill directs the Secretary of Interior to:

  • Place seasonal limitations on exploration, development, and related activities to avoid impacts on fish and wildlife. For example, the bill recommends surface disruptions be prevented in June and July, during the caribou herd calving period.
  • Limit initial exploration to between November 1 and May 1–the Arctic winter.
  • Require that all pipelines and roads minimize any effect on caribou.
  • Consider withdrawing up to 45,000 acres of the coastal plain to protect wildlife or other sensitive values.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups have asked President Clinton to declare the entire ANWR coastal plain a national monument, which would make it off-limits to drilling.

For more information

The Energy Information Administration’s May report on ANWR is available on the Internet at