WASHINGTON -- The environmental effects of oil and gas exploration and production on Alaska's North Slope have been accumulating for more than three decades, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. Efforts by the oil industry and regulatory agencies have reduced many environmental effects, but have not eliminated them. The committee that wrote the congressionally mandated report also said that the social and economic effects have been large, and both positive and negative.
"As policy-makers and the public discuss the future of the oil industry in Alaska, it is important for them to do so in the context of the cumulative environmental, social, and economic effects -- both positive and negative -- triggered by oil exploration and production," said committee chair Gordon Orians, professor emeritus of zoology, University of Washington, Seattle. "Although many studies have looked at the effects of specific activities, we examined how these effects add up over time, which has not been studied much until now."
The North Slope covers 89,000 square miles -- an area slightly larger than Minnesota -- from the crest of the Brooks Range to the Arctic coast, and includes the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska as well as parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where exploration for more oil has been proposed. Industrial activity on the North Slope has grown from a single operational oil field at Prudhoe Bay to a complex web of working oil fields and their interconnecting roads, pipelines, and power lines that extend from the Colville River in the west, to near the border of the wildlife refuge in the east. Oil production on the slope and along its coast accounts for about 15 percent of the nation's oil production, and if the area's huge reserves of natural gas are tapped, the region could become even more economically significant. Proposals for additional oil development on the slope and a lack of understanding of the environmental effects that have accumulated so far prompted Congress to ask for the committee's report.
The roads, rigs, and pipelines necessary to find, pump, and transport oil have been affecting the environment of the North Slope ever since large amounts of oil were discovered there in 1968, the committee said. The consequences have been mounting over time, despite enormous strides made by the oil industry and regulatory agencies in reducing environmental effects. For example, advances in locating and targeting oil have reduced the number of exploration wells, and the use of remote sensing to find oil has reduced off-road travel. Oil-drilling platforms also are smaller, leaving smaller physical imprints on the tundra, and some roads and drilling sites are now being constructed with ice instead of gravel.
But when production of oil and gas from the North Slope has ceased, equipment, buildings, roads, pads, and other installations will probably remain in place because of the high costs of dismantling, removal, and restoration, so some environmental effects are likely to persist, the committee said. For some areas of concern, however, the committee found no evidence that environmental effects have accumulated. For example, oil spills on the tundra so far have been small and have had only local impacts, and the damaged areas have recovered.
Although any expansion of oil exploration and production will exacerbate some existing effects and generate new ones, the committee noted that it was beyond the scope of its study to say whether the benefits derived from oil and gas production justify the accompanying undesirable environmental consequences. Society as a whole must debate and decide that issue.
Several accumulating effects on animal populations were pointed out by the committee. For example, bowhead whales have traveled a different route in their fall migration to avoid the noise of seismic exploration activities, although the exact extent of their detour is not known. More people on the North Slope has meant more refuse for scavenging bears, foxes, ravens, and gulls, which has boosted their numbers. However, these animals also prey on the eggs and nestlings of many bird species -- some of which are listed as endangered or threatened. In some years and in some places, reproductive success of the birds is too low to allow the populations to persist without additional birds joining from elsewhere.
The accumulated effects of oil development have not resulted in large declines in the overall size of the Central Arctic caribou herd on the North Slope so far, but it has affected their geographical distribution and reproductive success at times, the committee said. Although the spread of industrial activity into additional areas that caribou use for calving and for seeking relief from insects would likely have an adverse affect on their reproductive success, the degree to which caribou migrations and population size would be affected cannot be accurately predicted without more specific information about where future oil-production activity would take place.
The North Slope tundra has also been altered by extensive off-road travel, the report says. Networks of trails used for seismic exploration have harmed vegetation and caused erosion, and the trails degrade the visual experience of local residents and tourists. New technology has lessened -- but not totally eliminated -- the impact of seismic exploration on the Alaskan landscape, the committee said. The expansion of exploration activities into new areas could further damage the tundra, especially in hilly areas that are difficult to navigate. The roads that have made access to the North Slope easier also have had significant environmental effects.
The revenue stream created by oil development on the North Slope has led to profound social and economic changes, many of which residents consider to be positive, the committee said. Schools, health care, housing, and other community services have improved. At the same time, however, balancing the economic benefits of oil activities against the accompanying loss of traditional culture and other societal problems that can occur is often a dilemma for North Slope residents. Alcoholism and diabetes have increased, for example. Planners should try to head off the potential problems that may occur in these communities when oil and gas production declines on the North Slope, the committee added.
Subsistence harvesting by Alaska Natives has been affected, the report says. The Inupiat Eskimos, who have been hunting bowhead whales for centuries, have had to travel farther out to sea in the fall to catch whales that are avoiding the sound of oil-exploration machinery. This means hunters face a greater risk of running into bad weather or of whale tissue spoiling before they can return to shore, although recent agreements between the whalers and industry limit exploration during the whales' fall migration. And although a major oil spill has never occurred, it is perceived as a potential catastrophe by the Inupiat, according to interviews conducted by the committee while it was in Alaska. The committee agreed that the effects of a large spill would likely be substantial, especially if it occurred in broken ice, which would make cleanup operations extremely difficult.
The committee also interviewed representatives of the Gwich'in Indians, who have been relying on caribou for food and clothes for hundreds of years. The Gwich'in said that they perceive any oil development that would threaten the herd, especially on its calving grounds, as a serious threat to their culture.
Decisions about the timing, placement, and environmental protections needed for oil activities on the North Slope have been made on a case-by-case basis by agencies that have not communicated well with each other, the committee said. It recommended that a comprehensive framework and plan be developed, so that regulatory decisions are consistent with overall goals. The plan should consider long-term environmental consequences and should cover all phases of oil and gas development; it should include the dismantling and removal of equipment as well as environmental restoration.
Looking to the future, the committee recommended further research into environmental effects that are continuing to accumulate. In carrying out this environmental research, scientists should take advantage of the rich and detailed knowledge of local residents. Researchers also need to take a closer look at air pollution and contamination of water and food sources caused by oil exploration and production. And particular attention needs to be paid to how climate changes are affecting the relationship between oil development and the environment. If the current warming trend continues -- as many models predict it will -- it could affect the usefulness of oil-development technologies, as well as the number of plants and animals on the North Slope and their geographical distribution.
The study was mandated by Congress and sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.Copies of Cumulative Environmental Effects of Oil and Gas Activities on Alaska's North Slope will be available this spring from the National Academies Press; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu .
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