Home' Technology Review : April 2005 Contents 77
trapped with the oil, and the cuttings fed up to the surface by a
boring bit. These materials were formerly dumped into reser ve
pits six meters deep and around 4,000 square meters in area.
Cuttings and water can now be pumped back into the ground.
Further more, the water can now be separated from the oil while
still underground, which alleviates the need for surface separa-
tion facilities. The general e ect, industry contends, is smaller
facilities manned by fewer men.
The Case against Drilling
Of all these technical advances, the environmental lobby, as
might be expected, is skeptical. The Wilderness Society, for one,
has published a report questioning pretty much every industry
assertion about new drilling technology.
Environmentalists continue to doubt that Arctic exploration
can be conducted with anything like minimal impact. Rolligons,
they contend, are unlikely to work in the hilly terrain that charac-
terizes much of the coastal plain; their low-impact tires simply
will not propel them up a grade. Even ice roads, certainly the
most elegant of industry solutions to environmental problems,
are called into question. Environmental advocates point out that
water is a limited resource in the Arctic refuge and is not, in any
case, located close to likely oil elds. They also like to mention
that global warming has dramatically shortened the arctic ice
season. The environmental lobby fully expects that, if drilling is
approved, industry will sidestep the Rolligons when needed by
applying for exemptions and roll in heavier equipment.
As for drilling, environmentalists point out that directional
wells on the North Slope have averaged around one and a half ki-
lometers in length, reaching a maximum of six kilometers in one
instance, and that they in fact turned out to be so expensive that
BP abandoned them entirely in 2000. Environmentalists also
doubt claims that exploration can somehow be con ned to win-
ter, pointing out that oil companies have never ceased production
in the summer on the North Slope.
In these and other arguments, however, one begins to sense
that environmentalists are not so much addressing the technolo-
gies themselves as industry s willingness to employ them, an in-
terpretation bor ne out by the title of the Wilderness Society s
report on the subject, "Broken Promises." The bulk of most envi-
ronmental presentations, in fact, concerns not possibilities or
drawbacks inherent in an approach like directional drilling but
rather industry s poor record in employing old and new technol-
ogy alike, complete with the usual photos of production facilities
belching black smoke, the sprawling infrastr ucture at Prudhoe
Bay, and roads crisscrossing the tundra. Environmentalists fully
expect more of the same in the refuge.
More to the point, as environmentalists see it, the argument
is not about technology at all. Fancy wells are still wells, less in-
trusive exploration is still intrusive, and pipelines remain pipe-
lines (as well as the subject of the most laughably devious
language in recent House bills regarding the refuge, which
would limit the footprint of any industry activity---including the
150-kilometer or longer pipeline---to eight square kilometers but
interprets the pipeline s footprint as that of the thin piers on
which it would rest). None of these innovations, environmental-
ists contend, is compatible with wilderness, and they will turn a
refuge into an industrial corridor.
It is not beyond the bounds of reason, however, to imagine
that industry could drill with acceptably low impact. Man is an
intelligent animal, after all, and ought to be able to remove oil
from the ground without devastating the surrounding area. Less
philosophically, the legal nes attached to environmental regula-
tions are a mighty motivator. David Masiel, a former North Slope
oilman, addressed this topic in a 2004 article in Outside maga-
zine. He visited the North Slope and had conversations with
drillers, executives, and enforcement o cials. He found a new
culture of cleanliness, mainly inspired by the threat of expensive
lawsuits, to the point that drillers were actually baking gravel free
of spilled oil. Writing for a magazine that has previously taken
the administration to task for its environmental policies, Masiel
concluded that drilling could be done in the Arctic with a tolerable
level of damage---but only if clean drilling was legally enforced.
Secretary of the interior Gale Norton, in testimony before the
House in 2003, emphasized that "the administration views
tough regulation as an essential part of the ANWR proposal."
But the administration has squandered its credibility there---
something that may not have been apparent when Masiel took
his trip in 2002---and has in fact been rolling back environmental
regulations at a historically unprecedented rate. Areas desig-
nated as "roadless" in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, for
instance, are no longer roadless, and protections for wildlife
across the United States have been greatly weakened, as bird
watchers in New York recently discovered when a famous red-
tailed hawk s nest was removed from a cornice by nicky apart-
ment dwellers. Rules that have sur vived are simply not enforced:
old cases have been dropped, and new ones are decreasingly
pursued. It is only realistic to imagine that the same standards
will be applied to the oil elds.
The technology for drilling with low impact may be available.
Based on the administration s record of legislation and enforce-
ment, however, it is unlikely that industry will be compelled to
use it. Those technologies, such as coiled-tubing drilling, that
have already proven themselves to be both environmentally and
economically advantageous may be employed. Those that signi -
cantly increase the cost of drilling will be shoved aside unless the
administration mandates their use, which it will not. Industry is
not a moral being but an economic creature responding only to
economic stimuli. As such, given the current balance of power in
Washington, DC, there is good reason to conclude that big oil
probably could drill clean, but probably won t. ■
Bryant Urstadt has written for Harper s, Rolling Stone, and the
New Yorker. He lives in Guilford, CT.
Clean technologies that significantly
increase the cost of drilling will be
shoved aside unless the administration
mandates their use, which it will not.
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