home... news... novel... gossip... 'toons... archives... site map... us... e-mail... previous letters...
What Size Shoe Does the Oil Industry Wear?
Myths and facts about size of the "footprint" oil development will stamp into the fragile Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Proponents of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge claim that the oil industry could develop the refuge's 1.5-million-acre coastal plain using only 2,000 acres. In August, the House of Representatives passed an energy bill (H.R. 4) removing the current prohibition on drilling in the coastal plain, but limiting certain oil production activities to 2,000 acres. The amendment that introduced the limit, sponsored by New Hampshire Republican John Sununu, stated (Section 6507(a)(3)): "The secretary shall ... ensure that the maximum amount of surface acreage covered by production and support facilities, including airstrips and any areas covered by gravel berms or piers for support of pipelines, does not exceed 2,000 acres on the coastal plain."
Some newspapers have editorialized in support of drilling in the Arctic Refuge, repeating the claim that it could be done on 2,000 acres and citing the Sununu amendment as a good-faith effort to mitigate potential environmental damage. Closer examination, however, reveals that the oil industry could not possibly develop the coastal plain in a compact, contiguous 2,000-acre area, and the way the amendment is worded would open up the entire refuge coastal plain to development. Below is a look at the myths and realities of the "2,000-acre footprint."
Myth: The area needed to drill for oil in the Arctic Refuge is about the size of an airport.
Fact: According to the U.S. Geological Survey, oil in the refuge is not concentrated in one large reservoir within a 2,000-acre area but is spread across its 1.5-million-acre coastal plain in more than 30 small deposits.  To produce oil from this vast area, supporting infrastructure would have to stretch across the coastal plain. Networks of pipelines and roads obviously would fragment wildlife habitat.
Fact: The oil field industrial sprawl on the North Slope, including drill sites, airports and roads, and gravel mines has a footprint of 12,000 acres, but it actually spreads across an area of more than 640,000 acres, or 1,000 square miles. 
Fact: Proponents of drilling in the refuge point to the 100-acre Alpine oil field west of Prudhoe Bay as the state-of-the-art model for developing the refuge. The 2,000-acre "limitation" would allow 20 oil fields the size of Alpine scattered across the refuge's coastal plain.
Fact: Even if the 2,000 acres were contiguous, such an area could cover a lot of ground. For example, the 12-lane-wide New Jersey Turnpike, which stretches more than 100 miles across the state, covers only 1,773 acres. 
Fact: The so-called 2,000-acre limitation would allow oil development to take up as much area as the following items, which could be connected by a network of pipelines and roads:
Myth: The House bill would open only 2,000 acres of the Arctic Refuge coastal plain to oil and gas leasing, exploration, development and production activities.
Fact: The House bill would open the entire 1.5-million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge to oil and gas leasing and exploration, possibly exempting as much as 45,000 acres from leasing at Interior Secretary Gale Norton's discretion. Drilling proponents claim that this exemption would allow Norton to protect sensitive areas on the coastal plain, but 45,000 acres represents only 3 percent of the area.
Fact: The 2,000-acre limitation would not require that the 2,000 acres of production and support facilities be in one compact, contiguous area. As with the North Slope oil fields west of the Arctic Refuge, development could be spread over a very large area.
Fact: The 2,000-acre limitation only addresses "surface acreage covered by production and support facilities." In other words, it only includes the area where oil facilities actually touch the ground. Using Rep. Sununu's math, the 37 miles of pipeline at the Alpine oil field west of Prudhoe Bay would take up less than one-quarter of an acre of the Arctic Refuge coastal plain - where the pipelines' 12-inch-diameter posts hit the tundra.  The limitation also would not cover land excavated to bury pipelines.
Fact: The 2,000-acre limitation would not cover seismic or other exploration activities, which have significantly degraded the arctic environment west of the coastal plain. The oil industry conducts seismic activities with convoys of bulldozers and "thumper trucks," which drive over extensive areas of the tundra. Meanwhile, exploratory oil drilling would require moving heavy equipment, including large rigs, across the tundra. Exploration and production wells could be drilled anywhere on the entire 1.5 million-acre coastal plain.
Fact: The 2,000-acre limitation would not include gravel mines or roads. The House's limitation would allow for 20 oil fields the size of the 100-acre Alpine oilfield west of Prudhoe Bay, which required a 150-acre gravel mine and 3 miles of roads. More roads are planned.  Meanwhile, oil companies in the North Slope oil fields excavated gravel from mines that stretched over 2,000 acres, and then covered 10,000 acres of tundra with gravel for roads, drilling pads and building foundations. 
Fact: Development would affect areas well beyond the boundaries of roads, pads and other facilities. The journal Science reported in the late 1980s that the cumulative impact of oil exploration and development has indirectly affected more tundra than what was directly filled or excavated.  More recently, biologists found that decreased caribou calving within a 2.5-mile zone of pipelines and roads show that the "extent of avoidance greatly exceeds the physical 'footprint' of an oil-field complex." NRDC, 11/21/01
1. U.S. Geological Survey, 1999, "Oil and Gas Potential of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge 1002 Area, Alaska, " (U.S. Department of the Interior, Open File Report 98-34); see also, Richard A. Fineberg, "Understanding the U.S. Geological Survey Analysis of Estimated Oil Beneath the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, " Fairbanks: Research Associates (June 20, 2001).
2. Washington Post, "Reluctant Regulator on Alaska's North Slope, " September 13, 2000; GIS analysis, Ecotrust/ Alaska Conservation Alliance, Conservation GIS Support Center (2000).
3. There are 1,219 "lane miles" contained in the New Jersey Turnpike (the road itself is 118.5 miles) and all lanes are 12 feet wide. This comes out to 1,773 acres. That number does not include the shoulders because no exact number of miles of shoulders was available. If one assumes that shoulders run along either side of the turnpike for the entire length (118.5 miles) then that would add 287 acres, making the total 2,060 acres (the shoulders are 10 feet wide). See: http://www.nycroads.com/roads/nj-turnpike/.
4. A football field is 360 feet by 160 feet, 57,600 square feet, or 1.322 acres. National Football League, 2001. See: http://www.nfl.com/fans/rules/field.html
5. The Mall of America is 4.2 million square feet. That equals 96.4 acres (rounded to 100, or 1/20th of the proposed drilling area). See: http://www.mallofamerica.com/moa/servlet/SMTMall?mid=369&pn=STATIC&frame=main&rs=0&file=General/media_fastfacts.html.
6. Dulles International Airport has three runways: two that are 11,500 feet long and one that is 10,500 feet long, according to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority: http://www.mwaa.com/dulles/facts.htm. All three runways are 150 feet wide (personal communication Dulles International Airport by Eric Dayton, Natural Resources Defense Council, August 2001). The three cover a total of 115 acres, or 38 acres per runway.
7. The 34-mile pipeline connecting Alpine to the oil fields to its east has 2,760 Vertical Support Members (VSMs) while the 3-mile in-field pipeline for Alpine has 450 VSMs. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District, Permit Evaluation and Decision Document, Alpine Development Project, Colville River 18 (2-960874), p. 3 (February 13, 1998); Each VSM is approximately 12 inches in diameter (personal communication John Schoen, National Audubon Society with Alaska Department of Fish and Game (August 2001), which equals 3.14 sq. ft. 3.14 sq ft. X 3210 VSMs = 10,079.4 sq. ft, or roughly one-quarter acre.
8. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District, Permit Evaluation and Decision Document, Alpine Development Project, Colville River 18 (2-960874), p. 2 (February 13, 1998); U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District, Colville River 17 (4-960869) to Nuiqsut Constructors (Alpine gravel pit) (June 24, 1997).
9. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Comparison of actual and predicted impacts of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and Prudhoe Bay oilfields on the North Slope of Alaska, draft report, Fairbanks, p.12 (December 1987); U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Northeast National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska Final Integrated Activity Plan/ Environmental Impact Statement, Tables IV.A.5-3 and 5-5 (August 1998); State of Alaska, Department of Natural Resources (DNR), North Slope lease tracts database, (March 28, 2001).
10. Walker, D.A., P.J. Webber, E.F. Binnian, K.R. Everett, N.D. Lederer, E.A. Nordstrand, and M.D. Walker. 6 November 1987. "Cumulative impacts of oil fields on Northern Alaska landscapes, " Science Vol. 238: 757-761.
11. Nellemann, C. and R.D. Cameron. 1998. "Cumulative impacts of an evolving oil-field complex on the distribution of calving caribou, " Can. J. Sool. 76: 1425-1430.