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Winter/Spring 2003 Vol. 3 No. 1

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Caribou on Prudhoe Bay oil field, ©Galen Rowell/Corbis

Adding Up the Effects of Oil
and Gas Development in Alaska

Like all states, Alaska has hubs of industrial activity, and in this corner of the United States, much of it is centered on the North Slope, an 89,000 square-mile area where large-scale oil development has been taking place since the 1960s. In Alaska, industrial activity is having effects on the environment, just as it is apt to anywhere. But the extent of its effects over the course of many years has been unclear -- until now.

In the most exhaustive study to date, a National Research Council committee has documented more than three decades of environmental and social effects -- both positive and negative -- on the North Slope.

The North Slope Borough is responsible for governing a single municipality that is larger than 39 of the states. It employs 60 percent of the area's citizens, most of whom are Inupiat Eskimos. Besides jobs, the borough provides schools, housing, health care, utilities, police and fire protection, and other services, in large part paid for by taxes levied on oil companies.

When the Research Council committee interviewed area residents, it heard many positive comments about how the revenue stream from local industrial activities had changed people's lives. It also noted, however, that oil development has had some environmental consequences that have directly affected the Inupiat. Bowhead whales, for example, have diverted their normal migration paths to avoid the noise of seismic exploration activities, forcing Inupiat whalers to travel farther out to sea and raising their chances of running into bad weather or of whale meat spoiling before they can return to shore.

Just as the Inupiat have relied on the bowhead whale for subsistence for hundreds of years, another group of Alaska natives, the Gwich'in Indians, have depended for centuries on caribou for food and clothing. The committee found that so far oil development has not resulted in declines in the overall size of the Central Arctic caribou herd, but it has affected their geographical distribution and reproductive success at times.

It is impossible to predict the degree to which caribou would be affected by the spread of industrial activity on the North Slope without knowing more precisely where that activity is going to take place, the committee added. Oil and gas activities are currently confined to coastal areas and a swath of land about a hundred miles wide in the middle of the North Slope tundra, but the slope also includes parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where thousands of caribou return every spring to calve and where exploration for oil has been proposed.

The report says that more people on the North Slope has meant more garbage for scavenging animals, such as foxes, bears, and ravens, boosting their numbers. These animals also eat the eggs of many bird species, including some that are endangered or threatened.

An extensive network of exploration trails has damaged vegetation and caused erosion on the North Slope tundra and altered the scenery of the Alaskan wilderness, the report adds. Roads built to support oil development have helped connect villages to the outside world, but the thick foundation of gravel that is needed as insulation to protect the underlying permafrost also can cause problems, both where it is applied and where it is mined.

In other areas of concern, the committee found no evidence that environmental effects are accumulating. Spills, for example, generally have been small and reasonably contained. And while the web of roads, pipelines, and oil facilities on the North Slope has clearly impacted the environment over time, the oil industry and regulatory agencies have made enormous strides in reducing some of the effects. Oil platforms are smaller, and more precise drilling techniques have cut down on the number of wells. In addition, some roads are now built with ice instead of gravel.

Because of the high cost of restoring damaged habitats and removing industrial infrastructure, it is likely that some environmental effects will persist for many years, the committee said. It called for a comprehensive plan that addresses long-term environmental effects and the dismantling of equipment. Further research also is needed, especially on how climate change -- a continued warming trend, in particular -- is affecting the relationship between oil development and the environment.   -- Bill Kearney

Cumulative Environmental Effects of Oil and Gas Activities on Alaska's North Slope. Committee on the Cumulative Environmental Effects of Oil and Gas Activities on Alaska's North Slope, Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology, Polar Research Board, Division on Earth and Life Studies (2003, approx. 465 pp.; ISBN 0-309-08737-6; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $69.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Gordon Orians, professor emeritus of zoology, University of Washington, Seattle. The study was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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Copyright 2003 by the National Academy of Sciences