Global warming interferes with Alaska oil drilling
by: 23 July 2003
WASHINGTON -- Global warming, which most climate experts blame mainly on large-scale burning of oil and other fossil fuels, is interfering with efforts in Alaska to discover yet more oil.
The U.S. Department of Energy plans to help oil companies and Alaska officials find a way around the problem.
A state of Alaska rule says heavy exploration equipment can be used on fragile tundra only when the ground is frozen to 12 inches deep and covered by at least 6 inches of snow.
However, because winters in the Arctic are becoming shorter, the number of days the tundra meets those conditions has shrunk from more than 200 in 1970 to only 103 last year, a state document notes.
The Energy Department is providing a $270,000 grant to help determine whether there are ways the equipment can be used even when the tundra is not protected by snow.
In a June 3 news release, the Energy Department did not refer to global warming. Instead, it quoted Mike Smith, the assistant energy secretary for fossil energy, as saying the grant will be combined with $70,000 put up by oil companies to "refine our understanding of the tundra's resistance to disturbances."
But according to the state's description of the research, the shorter period for frozen tundra "appears consistent with findings of general warming in the Alaska Arctic associated with global climate change."
"It is unlikely that the oil industry can implement successful exploration and development plans with a winter work season consistently less than 120 days," says the Alaska project description. "Therefore, it is imperative that the Alaska Department of Natural Resources develop a new set of criteria that will simultaneously increase the number of days available to companies to conduct exploration and ice road construction in winter while providing equal or greater environmental protection of the tundra."
One of the arguments by those who favor oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is that work there would be conducted only during winter months so that the tundra would be protected.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and a vocal opponent of ANWR development, said that "for years, proponents of drilling in the Arctic refuge have unpersuasively argued that by doing all their development during the winter season on ice roads, the impact on the tundra would be negligible."
"Now they admit that they can't afford to drill unless they are allowed to trample the tundra in the non-winter season," he said. "The supreme irony is that the winter season is getting shorter because of a pronounced warming of the climate brought on, in part, by the burning of oil."
Rafe Pomerance, president of Americans for Equitable Climate Solutions, a group that explores climate issues, said the Energy Department grant "validates the fact that Alaska is warming rapidly and that significant damage is occurring."