Go Slow in Alaska

Congress should put a halt to any further action this year on legislation to lease the National Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil and gas exploration and production. The Reagan Administration has so badly bungled its campaign in behalf of leasing in the refuge that it has no credibility left on the issue. The decision should be left to the next Administration and a new Congress beginning in January, 1989.

In 1987 the Department of the Interior issued an environmental-impact report on the Arctic refuge proposal that was so blatantly pro-leasing that it even drew the condemnation of the Environmental Protection Agency. The report clearly underestimated the impact of oil exploration and drilling in the refuge and failed to consider sufficient alternatives to all-out leasing, the EPA said.

Significantly, the EPA also said that it was inappropriate for the Interior Department to conclude that environmental damage would be held to reasonable limits in the same manner as at the big oil development at Prudhoe Bay to the west. The data failed to support any such conclusion, the regional EPA administrator said.


In any event it now is clear that Prudhoe Bay is not such a great example to emulate. In a new report that was suppressed by Interior officials, the department’s Fish and Wildlife Service has concluded that environmental damage at Prudhoe Bay is far greater than had been envisioned when production was begun and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline built. “These impacts are presently occurring and will probably increase in the foreseeable future,” according to the report that was written by the Fish and Wildlife Service’s office in Fairbanks.

The report undercuts the oft-heard boasts of oilmen and Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel that the Prudhoe Bay development blends so with the wilderness that the local caribou herd has tripled in size. The Fish and Wildlife report says that the increase in caribou numbers may be attributable to the “killing, removal or displacement” of bears and wolves, the caribou’s natural predators.

Hodel and others also have contended that Arctic refuge disruption would not be as extensive as that at Prudhoe Bay. Interior’s own study predicts that oil production would directly affect only 12,650 acres of the 1.5-million-acre area proposed for leasing. But that would be even more than the 11,000 acres of wildlife habitat lost at Prudhoe Bay, which itself is almost double what had been predicted. The Fish and Wildlife Service also notes that the topography of the two regions varies widely, and so too could the impact. In fact, the Arctic refuge is far from the “flat, desolate landscape” that is portrayed in at least one oil company brochure. The Wilderness Society’s description of “America’s Serengeti” is more appropriate.

Finally, the Reagan Administration has failed to respond convincingly to critics who contend that a coherent national energy policy could meet the country’s needs without having to disrupt the Arctic refuge, where geologists say that there is a 19% chance of finding a major oil field of several billion barrels or more. A new Administration and new Congress should have the opportunity to draft a rational energy program, incorporating conservation and alternative sources, before deciding whether to drill the Arctic refuge or to preserve it as a wilderness area.