Here’s What 2,000 Acres of Arctic Refuge Drilling Could Really Look Like

Proponents of drilling for oil in the refuge say the impact will be limited to that amount of acreage, but the number is highly misleading.

There’s no shortage of shadiness wrapped up in the tax package the Senate is moving to pass before the end of the year, but one of the most alarming examples is Senator Lisa Murkowski’s (R-AK) effort to use the budget reconciliation process as a way to finally open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. Murkowski, who is the chairman of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, has long been a proponent of drilling in the Arctic Refuge, and with this newest tactic she is getting dangerously close to allowing development of one of America’s last untouched landscapes—and one of the most important breeding grounds for more than 200 species of migratory birds. 

The possibility of the Arctic Refuge becoming a victim of the latest tax bill has been a looming threat, but earlier this month it became a jarring reality when Murkowski revealed new legislation that would use revenue from selling oil and gas leases in the refuge’s 1.5 million-acre coastal plain as a way to help offset tax cuts. The bill, which in theory limits the overall development footprint to 2,000 acres of the refuge’s fertile coastal plain, also known as the 1002 area, was approved by Energy and Natural Resources Committee on November 15 and is now officially part of the Senate tax bill. That bill is expected to be voted on this week. 

Take action and help birds today! Tell your representatives in Congress to keep Arctic Refuge drilling out of the tax package.

While any development in the Arctic Refuge should be avoided (it’s called a wildlife refuge for a reason, after all), it’s important to make one thing very clear about the so-called 2,000-acre limit: It isn’t just inaccurate—it’s downright deceiving. Champions of drilling in the refuge often use words like “only” and “minimal” when comparing the 2,000 acres of potential development to the refuge’s total 19 million acres, but as the animation here shows, the number is incomplete and misleading. The graphic is the creation of Stanley Senner, Audubon’s vice president for bird conservation and an expert on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, who mapped out what 2,000 acres of drilling might look like based on other oil and gas fields in Alaska. Although hypothetical, the image illustrates how much land a 2,000-acre footprint could cover while also showing what’s missing from the limit—which is a lot. 

Here’s what that 2,000-acre limit includes: main production pads, satellite fields, seawater treatment plants, docks, and pipeline pads. Notice anything missing? Roads. They’re pretty important. Also: the actual elevated pipelines. Good for moving oil around. Let's not forget about the powerlines, either. And then there's the gravel pits, which are needed to supply gravel for the areas covered by gravel pads. All of this habitat-fragmenting infrastructure is absolutely necessary and adds to the total footprint, and yet it isn’t accounted for in the proposed 2,000-acre limit. Meanwhile, industrial development on permafrost can lead to flooding and other hydrological changes, including draining the coastal plain’s ponds, which are vital for breeding shorebirds, terns, loons, and other waterfowl.

Could there really be that much sprawl? Yes. Murkowski and others like to make the specious claim that the overall footprint will be limited because of methods such as directional drilling, which allows companies to access multiple oil sources underground from a single pad. That’s great where it works, but the problem in the Arctic is that directional drilling is often limited due to permafrost and the underlying geology. So, to reach whatever various pockets of oil are located throughout the coastal plain, there will be more drilling sites than people are led to believe. And all those drilling sites are connected by industrial infrastructure—the same infrastructure missing from the 2,000-acre limit. Considering all that, suddenly 2,000 acres no longer seems small and the impact is anything but minimal.

As Audubon has previously reported, the creep and effects of such sprawl can be seen at the Prudhoe Bay oil complex, which is only a few miles west of the Arctic Refuge. At Prudhoe, technically only 18,000 acres have been developed, but the overall amount of land that has been disturbed and developed is more like 217,000 acres. And unintended consequences such as flooding, scattered gravel and debris littering the tundra, and an increase in predators have also been documented. There’s no reason to think the same won’t happen in the Arctic Refuge if it is opened to oil development. Indeed, such damage is inevitable, effectively irreversible, and, unlike the 2,000-acre limit, indisputable.