Tuesday, December 16, 2008

It’s time for a new approach to ANWR — Oil development can be done responsibly if boom mentality changes

Ironically, Ted Stevens’ defeat by Senator-elect Mark Begich could pave the way for the exploration and eventual development of oil extraction in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that the former senator so fervently desired.

Stevens, and even more so Rep. Don Young, made a strategic error by framing ANWR in terms of developers vs. environmentalists, although the latter certainly forced the issue. In the decades-long scenario that emerged, developers were the good guys and environmentalists were the bad guys and the issue took on characteristics of a religious crusade. The term “Open ANWR” had the tone of evil Outside environmentalists aided by a few diabolical Gwich’in magicians holed up in a medieval castle — ANWR — that contained riches the noble knights of big oil wanted to liberate for their feudal lords.

Making the issue even more divisive has been the vacuous “drill, baby, drill” cheer led by Gov. Sarah Palin during her vice-presidential bid. The chant evokes images of an Oklahoma-style land rush with wildcat drill rigs lined up ready to charge across the tundra at daybreak, scattering caribou and ground squirrels before them.

One would think that with the election of President Barack Obama the ANWR issue would be over for four years. Maybe not. There is a way the Obama administration and the American public might concede that careful, controlled oil exploration could be in the best interest of the country, economy and the environment.

That way is to start with the premise that after 20 or 30 years, when the oil and gas is pumped out, ANWR becomes a national park with management oversight by park professionals and the Gwich’in and Inupiat people who occupy the region. The concept should not be “Open ANWR!” but gradually and responsibly extract oil from subsurface strata under the direction of a park/first nation’s consortium. Castle ANWR becomes Project ANWR by conceiving of it first and foremost as a wilderness area in which the land is not leased for development, but oil companies are hired to extract the oil.

Castle ANWR becomes Project ANWR by bringing the best minds in the environmental, scientific, industrial and indigenous communities together with a mandate to configure the principles through which oil and gas development can be done within the framework of a national park. Some of those principles might be:

  • Do the baseline studies first. Know characteristics of wildlife movements and population dynamics and everything else about this remarkable environment. Embrace traditional ecological knowledge.
  • Minimize the footprint and require state-of-the-art environmental protection and monitor its use. BP doesn’t get to be in charge of anti-corrosion; use the pig. Encourage a corporate culture of environmental protection, and discourage practices that manipulate the intent of responsible regulation.
  • Give regulations teeth and don’t let the Supreme Court be in charge of punitive damages for errant corporations.
  • Respect the traditional and spiritual connection the Gwich’in and Inupiat people have to the land. If Iceland can put a jog in a highway to avoid a place where the “little people” live, oil companies can avoid building infrastructure and operational practices that impact the spirits of place without rolling their eyeballs or marginalizing indigenous people’s beliefs.
  • While economics of scale encourage boom-style development, the pace should be slow and deliberate to avoid poor decision making and negative community impact. (Perhaps you remember hookers actively soliciting cars stopped at Fourth Avenue intersections during the last oil boom, giving added meaning to the term “red light district.”)

Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that ANWR oil development will substantially lessen dependence on foreign oil. And let’s be clear — any oil development will contribute to global climate change.

But, if all this and more is done, ANWR after 30 years will be much as it is now. The oil will be pumped out, and oil companies will have made a lot of money. The state and federal governments will be a little bit wealthier, and a few people will have had well-paying jobs. The caribou will still roam. Any acceleration of climate change will hopefully have been offset by activities elsewhere. And there will have been no boom, just steady change, and Alaskans will be viewed as a people who can think and act for the long-term good.

Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.

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