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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

ANWR Drilling

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Bush administration says America needs new domestic sources of energy. And it's time, the White House declares, to tap the oil reserves in Alaska buried beneath the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, called ANWR. Proponents of drilling in ANWR say 95 percent of the region is already open for energy exploration, and technological advances in the drilling process now allow oil companies to limit their environmental footprint. Opponents say the ecosystem is too sensitive to handle more drilling, and any fuel found there would not reach markets for years. Joining me is Steve Taylor, who recently retired as Director of Environmental Policy for British Petroleum in Alaska. Mr. Taylor says while oil drilling is now much easier on the environment, it still comes at a cost to ecosystems.

TAYLOR: Probably the most dramatic change that has occurred has to do with the way they manage exploration and production drilling wastes. That, in combination with what's known as directional drilling, has led to approximately a 70 percent reduction in the amount of habitat that has to be covered up in doing development.

CURWOOD: Let's talk specifically about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Scientists say the coastal plain is the most biologically diverse area of this entire reserve. How possible is it to drill in this area in a way that will protect the ecological diversity of this area?

TAYLOR: Oh, it's very easy. The issue with respect to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is really an aesthetics and a wilderness issue. It's not necessarily an environmental issue. In other words, oil companies could go in, they could develop in that area, without having any significant adverse impact on the environment.

CURWOOD: If your perspective is true, why do you think there's so much of a hoo-hah, so much concern about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

TAYLOR: To me it's a benchmark. There's an overriding issue, and that overriding issue is what kind of energy policy does this country want, and what kind of policy do we want to maintain wilderness? You know, this is a decision that the people in this country, and those people who represent us, the decision they've got to make. To what extent do we set aside areas for wilderness value and don't develop, and at the same time what areas do we have open for development? And the matter of reality is, we can't have pristine wilderness and everlasting cheap energy.

CURWOOD: Tell me about the oil that would be found in ANWR. How much oil is estimated to be there?

TAYLOR: Oh, I won't try to quote the Department of Interior's estimates, because they've been revised a couple of times. But there is the potential for a significant find there.

CURWOOD: How long would it take to retrieve it if drilling were approved tomorrow? How long would we see this oil on the market?

TAYLOR: That's hard to say, because obviously there would be a lot of litigation over environmental impact statements, the results, stipulations, all of that kind of stuff. My guess is, if it was open tomorrow, you'd see oil come out in ten years.

CURWOOD: A decade.

TAYLOR: Mmm hm.

CURWOOD: Doesn't help us much.

TAYLOR: (Laughs) No, this is not going to help California at all right now. But here again, would California be in that position if we had a national energy policy?

CURWOOD: Yes, how is drilling in ANWR related to the current energy crisis, given that it would take a decade to get its oil to market?

TAYLOR: I think it becomes a part of an energy policy. In other words, an energy policy has not only got to look at what we have today, it's got to look at where we're going to be five years, ten years, fifteen years, twenty years down the road. You know, a lot of people would like to see a conversion out of hydrocarbons, but that, if it comes, is going to be way into the future. And I'm one who believes that we, yes we, need the oil from ANWR as part of our long-range strategy to provide satisfactory energy supplies to the country.

CURWOOD: How much do you think drilling in ANWR would help protect us in terms of price for oil? We've seen prices way down; it was down to eleven dollars a barrel when I was in Alaska a couple of years ago. Now it easily hits thirty, thirty-five bucks a barrel. Would drilling in ANWR help stabilize oil prices for American consumers?

TAYLOR: I would question whether it would. To me the oil price is pretty much driven by the world market for oil, not just this country. And, of course, you know, the Middle East can control that price by limiting their output. But here again, look at what oil has escalated over the last twenty years, and it's no more expensive now than it was twenty or thirty years ago. You know, to me, it's phenomenal when a gallon of gas is cheaper than a gallon of water out of the store.

CURWOOD: Mr. Taylor, how much of this is politics and symbols?

TAYLOR: As far as the effect of ANWR oil on prices, future energy dependence, what not, I think a lot of it's politics. With respect to being able to develop in ANWR without significant adverse effect, that's fact. We can demonstrate that.

CURWOOD: Okay. You've been in this business for a good while. You've seen the prospects for ANWR up, you've seen them go down. What's your read of what do you think will happen now in the weeks and months ahead?

TAYLOR: (Laughs) I think it goes right back to the politics. If there's sufficient energy shortage, whether the two are connected together or not, like you pointed out earlier, you know, California's shortage of natural gas right now is not connected to oil in ANWR, obviously it's not. But when people have to start to pay more for energy, they complain, and they complain to their congressman. And if those situations continue -- in other words, if there is an air throughout the country that we're running out of energy, we've got a shortage -- Congress will probably open up the coastal plain of ANWR. If that doesn't continue, then they won't.

CURWOOD: And what do you think should be the right answer here? What should Congress do?

TAYLOR: What Congress should do is put together a well-defined energy policy and get buy-in from the people of this country, so that everybody knows what the situation is. Everybody knows what we're going to give up in order to have energy. Because we are going to give up wilderness for energy, if we produce the energy ourselves. And so you know, these are questions I think Congress has been negligent on, and I think they need to be tackled.

CURWOOD: And if you were in charge, you'd say we need to give up some wilderness in ANWR and drill there.

TAYLOR: Well, not only do I think we're going to have to give up some wilderness and drill, there's the other side of the equation. And I think that side of it is that the oil companies have to accept that in the minds of the American people some areas are too valuable as wilderness to allow exploration and development.

CURWOOD: What is that balance? Is ANWR one of those too-precious places for you?

TAYLOR: It could be. It could be.

CURWOOD: Steve Taylor, recently retired from his position as BP's director of environmental policy in Alaska. Thank you for taking this time with us today.

TAYLOR: Thank you.

(Music up and under: XTC, "Train Running Low on Soul Coal")



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