Prior to 2009 whenever I heard talk of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for drilling, my uninformed opinion was that it should remain closed. Having never stepped foot in the state it calls home—Alaska—I believed that to open the refuge to development would be its downfall.
But life has a funny way of teaching facts and turning opinions. Now, eight years and many experiences later, my view on the subject has changed.
I lived in Alaska for two months in the summer of 2011. Two weeks of my 2009 were spent fl oating at the edge of the Beaufort Sea ice pack north of the Slope on a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker. In 2013 as part of a whirlwind two-day tour of a Cook Inlet drilling and production platform, I witnessed its raw wildness while watching bald eagles feast on the fat salmon they had just plucked from the running waters of a snowmelt creek.
My Alaskan experiences repeatedly demonstrated the state’s unique differences. This is a land where the Lower 48’s definition of normal does not fit. This difference in definition quickly teaches visitors to the Alaskan wild to question appearances as the same summer light that helps green cabbages grow to the size of large wrecking balls also plays tricks on the eyes. Cheechakos, a term of endearment for new residents of the state that have yet to experience their first winter, learn that to survive there they must look closer and think bigger.
Thinking bigger is something we should try to do more often. My big “aha” moment for Alaska and for ANWR came while listening to Fran Ulmer, chairwoman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission and member of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.
Speaking at an Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission meeting in 2011 about the findings from the spill investigation and recommendations for safer offshore drilling, Ulmer noted that Americans have a certain luxury in saying that they won’t drill in their sensitive ecosystems like ANWR while importing oil from places like Africa and Brazil that have their own sensitive ecosystems.
I am reminded of her words whenever the possibility of opening ANWR to drilling is discussed, as it is now in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Capitol. According to a New York Times article, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska believes opening the “1002 Area” to leasing by oil and gas companies to explore and develop could “generate tens of billions of dollars in revenues through the collection of leasing revenues over the life of the fields for every level of government.”
Are these billions a realistic possibility in the near term? Doing anything in Alaska requires very deep pockets, and we’re not talking about $6 gallons of milk or $4 loaves of bread. With oil markets settling out at about $50/bbl oil prices and breakevens hovering at or below $50/bbl, is now the best time to consider opening even a tiny sliver of ANWR for exploration and drilling when oil can be had for far cheaper prices in places closer to home like the Bakken Shale or Permian Basin? I believe that the industry can safely explore and drill in ANWR and that it should be open to such activities. But I find the current timing for such an opening suspect.