As Congress prepares to consider opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas production, an elite scientific panel reported Tuesday that 30 years of energy development in Alaska had already damaged the region's environment and culture.
Despite enormous strides by the oil industry and regulatory agencies in minimizing environmental effects, the consequences of development have been mounting over the years, according to the report, which was conducted by the National Academies' National Research Council at the request of Congress.
Noise from seismic exploration has displaced migrations of bowhead whales and forced subsistence hunters farther out to sea to capture them, the report said.
In addition, the report found that the massive network of roads constructed to support the industry has harmed the tundra, caused flooding and altered animal habitat and behavior.
The report also noted that as companies have switched to three-dimensional survey methods, the off-road seismic vehicles used for oil exploration require a greater density of trails. The new technique creates greater erosion, water flow and damage to vegetation, the report found.
"[B]ecause the seismic trails are readily visible, especially from the air, they affront the residents and degrade the visual experience of the landscape," the report states.
However, contrary to the fears of many, there is no evidence of accumulated effects from oil spills, the panel found.
The extensive report, the first to thoroughly explore the cumulative impact of energy development in Alaska's North Slope, will feed the coming congressional debates on permitting development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
President Bush and GOP congressional leaders are pressing to open the refuge to drilling as a means of bolstering domestic energy production.
Most congressional Democrats and a handful of Republicans ardently oppose such a move. In 2001, the House passed a measure to allow drilling in the refuge, but the legislation was blocked by the Senate, which was then in Democratic hands.
The first test of the new Senate's attitude toward drilling in the refuge is expected later this month. The fiscal year 2004 budget resolution is expected to include a provision anticipating money from development in the refuge. Opponents to drilling will try to strike the provision.
Republican senators decided to raise the issue through the budget resolution -- and later in the massive budget bill -- because this strategy would require only a majority of senators to vote in favor of drilling.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who requested the report, accused the authors of bias and said that their findings would be used as a weapon against oil and gas development in Alaska.
"To hear them talk, you would think it would be in the best interest of the country to turn the clock back and put the Eskimos back in igloos and deny them energy, deny them any assistance of the federal government and deny them any income from the production of their lands," Stevens said.
Opponents of drilling agreed that the report would bolster their cause.
"You couldn't ask for more concrete scientific proof of the adverse impact on the environment that is caused by drilling -- and, spin as they might, the Bush administration can't reconcile this evidence with their push to drill in one of our precious national treasures, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).
The panel did not address the question of whether Congress should approve the expansion of the development area into the Arctic refuge. But Gordon Orians, chairman of the committee of 18 scientists and scholars, said the panel hoped that Congress and other decision-makers would use the findings to form policy decisions.
Since the early 1970s, 14 billion barrels of crude oil have been produced in Alaska's North Slope, supplying an average of 20% of the U.S. domestic production since 1977.
Now the government is considering expanding development westward into the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska and eastward into the refuge.
In addition to considering the effects on the natural environment, the report probed the consequences of development on the human environment and found profound social and economic changes, both positive and negative.
Schools, jobs, health care, housing and community services have improved, the report found. But the changes also resulted in increased alcoholism, drug abuse and child abuse from new stresses. Higher consumption of nonsubsistence foods increased the number of individuals with diabetes and other health problems.
"Although many public services would not have been possible without the revenue from oil development, many of those public services would not have been necessary if oil had not been found and extracted from the North Slope," the report said.
The report also found an impact on the local population's way of life.
The Inupiaq people, who for centuries have relied on bowhead whales both for food and as a focus of their culture, have been forced many miles farther out into dangerous seas and harsh weather to find their kills, according to the report. This adds risk to the hunters' lives, and there is a greater chance that the whale tissue will spoil before the fishermen return their kill to land, the panel found.
Some animals have benefited from development, especially those that feed off garbage, resulting in higher densities of predators, such as brown bears, Arctic foxes, ravens and glaucous gulls. They have preyed on eggs, nestlings and fledgling birds. As a result, reproduction rates of black brant, snow geese and eiders have not kept up with death rates.
Because birds fly in from outlying areas and repopulate the species, the panel found that if development spreads outward, the threat to the species could grow.
"You may reach a point where you get very significant demographic effects popping up," said Orians, professor emeritus of zoology at the University of Washington.
The authors also looked at the question of how climate change might influence the effect that drilling has on the region. If the climate changes, which have been "unusually rapid" in the North Slope in recent decades, continue as projected, current oil-field technologies -- such as the reliance on ice roads -- may no longer be useful, the report said.