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What would happen to the environment if U.S. federal lands were open to oil drilling?


Down with Oil Drilling
Oil drilling creates a pretty imposing footprint on the surrounding environment, as you can see here in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.
Oil drilling creates a pretty imposing footprint on the surrounding environment, as you can see here in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

­While opponents of oil drilling on federal land applaud big oil's environmental improvements, they argue that such improvements are the exception and not the rule. Backing them up is a study by the United States General Accounting Office concluding that improved drilling practices have reduced, but not eliminated, drilling's negative effects -- effects that are compounded many times over when the improvements aren't even used. Furthermore, the study concluded that oversight and enforcement of environmental regulations, when given, were inconsistent. Some oil operators weren't even monitored or given guidelines, and even when they were, they didn't always comply [source: United States General Accounting Office].

A lack of enforcement and­ environmental oversight, opponents argue, is not only inexcusable but can lead to irreversible damage to some of the country's last remaining remarkable places. Prudhoe Bay in Alaska, for instance, still carries scars from oil-seeking seismic vehicles that drove around sending shock waves through the fragile earth more than 20 years ago [source: Zandstra]. Such seismic exploration, designed to determine where oil is located by analyzing the rate at which waves bounce back, can lead to water seepage, erosion and wildlife disturbances. The United States Geological Survey estimates it could take up to 300 years for soil to recover from such damage [source: Environmental Working Group].

Locating the oil, though, is just the first step. Once it's found (and this can require several unsuccessful drillings), workers build roads, haul in equipment and set up their rigs. All of which often requires clearing out vegetation, tearing up the land, creating continuous noise and emitting air pollution. While such disturbances may not bother all animals, others are more sensitive. In the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for example, pregnant caribou frequently visit the proposed drilling corridor and polar bears rely on the area to raise cubs. A wildlife biologist testifying before Congress argued that any development would most certainly lead to population declines [source: Lentfer].

Drilling also uses up large quantities of water, which can deplete aquifers, and produces large amounts of toxic waste that can contaminate the surrounding environment. It also often requires the injection of harmful chemicals into the drill site to enhance oil flow.

While more environmentally friendly alternatives do exist, many opponents suggest that, even taking such improvements into account, some places are simply too precious to risk and should be left undisturbed. Indeed, even if all the improvements are enacted, the chance of harm is still significant. Oil, after all, is an insidious substance. With the capability of spreading half a football field a second, even a small spill can be lethal and take decades to clean up [source: Nixon]. Several species of wildlife at a national wildlife refuge in Louisiana opened to drilling died from oil contamination without the staff even being aware of any large spills [source: United States General Accounting Office]. Elsewhere, spills are common: Prudhoe Bay in Alaska sees an average of 293 a year [source: Zandstra]. With increased production across the country, it's logical to conclude that similar spills will only increase.

­If the decades-long tussle over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is any indication, the fight to open U.S. federal land to oil drilling isn't going to be a quiet one. While even die-hard environmentalists may accept the fact that some areas of the country can be drilled without lasting damage, they view Old Faithful and its kin as an entirely different story. For more information on oil drilling and the environment, try the links on the next page.


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