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THE ARCTIC NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

The Impact of Oil Development on the North Slope

O
nce part of the largest Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
intact wilderness area without harming its fragile, pristine,
in the United States, and unique environment.
Alaska’s North Slope
now hosts one of the world’s largest Air pollution and greenhouse gases
industrial complexes. More than 500 Each year, oil operations on Alaska’s
miles of roads and 1,100 miles of North Slope emit more than 56,000
pipelines, as well as thousands of tons of nitrogen oxides, which con-
acres of industrial facilities, tribute to smog and acid
sprawl over some 1,000 rain. According to the
square miles of once-pristine Environmental Protection
arctic tundra. Prudhoe Bay Agency, this amount sur-
and 18 other oilfields contain passes the emissions of tems remains largely unknown,
more than 3,800 exploratory Rhode Island or Vermont some arctic species are known to be
and producing wells, 170 pro- and is more than twice the especially sensitive to air pollutants.
duction and exploratory drill amount spewed by It is also clear that North Slope
pads, 22 gravel mines, and 25 Washington, DC. Plumes of oil facilities release greenhouse
oil-production plants, gas pollution from Prudhoe Bay gases, which are a major contributor
processing facilities, and seawater have been detected in Barrow, to global climate change. Each year,
treatment and power plants. Alaska, almost 200 miles away. they emit 2 to 11 metric tons of car-
All of this activity is taking place Pollutants from its drilling opera- bon dioxide and some 24,000 to
tions, natural gas facilities, and 114,000 metric tons of methane.


in an exceptionally fragile region.
Because of the very short summer incinerators have also been detected
in snow in the Prudhoe Bay area. Calving ground of the Porcupine caribou
growing season, extreme cold at
herd, with Mount Michelson looming
other times of the year, nutrient- Although the overall impact of beyond. This is the area where the oil
poor soils, and permafrost, vegeta- these air pollutants on arctic ecosys- industry wants to drill.

tion grows very slowly in the North


Slope. Any physical disturbance—
bulldozer tracks, seismic oil explo-
ration, spills of oil and other toxic
substances—can scar the land for
decades. The economic and techni-
cal feasibility of restoring the tens of
thousands of acres destroyed by
roads and gravel pads is unknown.
The wilderness qualities of this
remote and fragile area have been
irrevocably altered by the heavy
industry that now dominates its
landscape. A close look at the last
Pamela A. Miller

three decades of this sprawling oil


development dispels the myth that
drilling can take place in the nearby
Emissions climb even higher as operations on the North Slope.
North Slope oil is transported by These sites contain a variety of toxic
tanker, refined, and eventually com- materials, including acids, lead,
busted in engines or power plants. pesticides, solvents, diesel fuel,
caustics, corrosives, and petroleum
Waste hydrocarbons. Leakage from some
For years, old reserve pits, holding sites has contaminated the sur-

K.R.Whitten
millions of gallons of drilling and rounding environment.
© 2001 Natural Resources Defense Council Design: Jenkins & Page (NYC) Printed on recycled paper with 20% post-consumer content.

other wastes, littered the North


Slope. The pits typically contained a Spills Aerial view of an oil drilling rig: an
variety of toxic metals as well as Each year, hundreds of spills occur industrial scar in the midst of pristine
arctic tundra.
petroleum hydrocarbons and other on the North Slope, involving tens
harmful substances. Thanks partly
to litigation by NRDC, handling Pipeline. From 1996 to 1999,
methods for the waste in these approximately 1600 spills occurred,
reserve pits have improved. But Oil operations on involving more than 1.2 million gal-
while industry has closed many of lons of diesel fuel, oil, acid, biocide,
the pits, hundreds remain to be
Alaska’s North Slope
ethylene glycol, drilling fluid, and
cleaned. And despite advances in emit more than 56,000 other materials. In the Arctic, the
disposal methods—in which environmental impacts of oil spills
drilling wastes are ground up and tons of nitrogen oxides are more severe and last longer
re-injected into wells—problems annually—more than than in more temperate climates.
remain. In 2000, for instance, British Diesel fuel, for instance—the most
Petroleum was ordered to pay $22 either Rhode Island or frequently spilled product on the
million in civil and criminal fines
Vermont emits in a year, North Slope—is acutely toxic to
and to carry out a new environmen- plants. Even after decades have
tal management program, because and more than twice the passed, tundra vegetation has been
its contractors had illegally dis- unable to recover from diesel spills.
posed of hazardous wastes contain-
amount emitted by
Industrialization of Alaska’s
ing benzene and other toxics for at Washington, DC. North Slope has inflicted significant
least three years at the Endicott oil damage to the air, water, and
field. These crimes only came to wilderness of America’s Arctic.
light because a whistle-blower Drilling the Arctic National Wildlife
reported them to the EPA. of thousands of gallons of crude oil Refuge will similarly transform its
The Alaska Department of and other petroleum products and wilderness character and threaten
Environmental Conservation lists hazardous materials. In fact, the the wildlife that depends on it.
more than 55 existing contaminated region suffers about a spill a day
sites associated with oil industry from the oil fields and Trans-Alaska

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