Brennan: Drill ANWR to protect the caribou

By Tom Brennan |

Since this is the 40th anniversary year of the Trans Alaska Pipeline startup and the 50th year of the oil well that made the Prudhoe Bay discovery, those who were involved are being urged to record their memories.

I worked at ARCO from 1969-1980 and at Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. in 1988-89 and was thinking I would do my reminiscing this week, but some greenie grousing on radio station KSKA distracted me and I have changed my mind. The environmentalists were complaining about the wreck of the Exxon Valdez and the resulting oil spill.

I was a first-responder on the Exxon Valdez and have strong feelings about what happened there and who was responsible (It was Exxon’s oil but Gov. Steve Cowper turned a containable oil spill into an environmental disaster by blocking the detergent drops that were supposed to be made in response to such a spill. He blocked the detergents because the greens were screaming and didn’t want anything to happen).

But I have decided that this week’s column will focus on another bit of environmentalist mischief that has prevented development of a major oil field on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

ANWR is a 19 million-acre federal withdrawal in Alaska’s northeast corner. It includes a beautiful portion of the Brooks Range, some very attractive foothills and a bleak coastal plain containing, among other things, about 10 billion barrels of recoverable crude oil and a lot of gas. It is also the summer calving grounds of the Porcupine River caribou herd.

The coastal plain was designated for oil exploration years ago but the only real effort in that regard was a stratigraphic test (a drilled well to collect geological information) that was used, with other available data, to develop the estimate of the oil existing in the formation.

That formation is but a few miles east of the Prudhoe Bay discovery and it could be developed with minimal environmental impact, and shipped south via the existing trans-Alaska pipeline, but the greenies go ballistic whenever the subject comes up.

And that is a shame since development of ANWR’s oil and gas potential could well be accomplished without harm to the caribou, perhaps even adding a new layer of protection to their calving grounds. There is verifiable proof of that claim in the record for environmental protection in the huge oil fields just to the west.

After ARCO made the big Prudhoe Bay discovery announced in March 1968, ARCO Board Chairman Robert O. Anderson hired Angus Gavin, retired CEO of Ducks Unlimited of Canada, to study the impact of company operations on the birds and wildlife populations of the Prudhoe Bay Area.

Angus Gavin didn’t report to anybody in the company (except Anderson) but I was his point of contact within the company. (I was Alaska public relations manager). My instructions were to get Angus anything he wanted to do his job, including an airplane with pilots.

One of Angus’ first projects was to study the waterfowl and caribou populations of the Prudhoe Bay Area and make recommendations on what needed to be done to protect the wild assets of the oil field and the area surrounding it. That year (1969) Angus started an intensive survey of the caribou herd that summered in the Central Arctic portion of the North Slope. The first year he counted something like a thousand caribou. The second year he invited two biologists from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to accompany him and instructed his pilots to fly anywhere the state biologists wanted to go. That year they counted something like 2,000 caribou in the area.

But by 2010 the Central Arctic caribou herd had ballooned to an estimated 60,000 animals and in recent years has fallen to about 22,000 animals. (That corresponds to a period of reduced activity in the producing oil fields.) The Porcupine River caribou herd, which uses the ANWR coastal plain as its calving grounds, is much larger, about 190,000 animals in 2010.

I asked Angus one time why the caribou herds seemed to fluctuate so much in size and why the Central Arctic herd had gone from a few thousand animals to tens of thousands of animals. He said that, for one thing, they tended to move around a lot and might wind up in one herd’s calving grounds one year and with another herd a few years later. But the primary reason why the Central Arctic Herd seemed to explode is that the animals were essentially protected by the presence of the oil field.

Angus said the caribou were at their most vulnerable to predation from wolves and grizzly bears on their calving grounds. But both the wolves and the bears tend to avoid human activities and generally stayed away from the herds when they were in the oil fields, leaving the caribou unmolested. That meant the caribou were least vulnerable, and largely protected from predators, when they were on the calving grounds within the oil field.

The point of this rant is that the core of the Porcupine River caribou herd calving grounds is in the area proposed for drilling. It is quite likely that the best thing you could do to protect those caribou, at least during calving time, is to develop the oil field on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Much of ANWR is a gorgeous mountainous area south of the 1002 Area, as the Coastal Plain is known. That beautiful area has the kind of scenery and wildlife that you expect in a national park. But the region with all the beauty and wildlife is out of sight over the southern horizon from the rather bleak 1002 Area.

Drilling the Coastal Plain of ANWR is probably the best thing you could do for the animals that the environmentalists say they want to protect.

Don’t expect them to admit that.

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