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

By: Jennifer Horton

Since 1872, crowds have delighted in the eruption of Yellowstone National Park's Old Faithful geyser.
Since 1872, crowds have delighted in the eruption of Yellowstone National Park's Old Faithful geyser.
Buddy Mays/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Roughly every 90 minutes or so, Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park erupts with astonishing regularity to the delight of onlookers. If it weren't for Woodrow Wilson naming Y­ellowstone the first national park more than 100 years ago, many people wouldn't even know geysers like Old Faithful existed. But since that day, Americans have been able to rely on the National Park Service to maintain scores of unique landmarks across the country. And it's as true today as it was when the park system was established in 1872: During times of economic instability and fluctuating gas prices, it's nice to have something like Old Faithful you can count on.

­But what if the famous geyser stopped spewing water and spewed oil instead? What if national parks and the like were stripped of their protected status and declared fair ground for oil drilling?


Since the creation of Yellowstone, more than 84 million acres have been added to the National Park Service [source: National Park Service]. Add to that the 94 million acres of national wildlife refuges, countless national forests and other managed public lands, and you have more than 650 million acres that fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government [source: Scheer/National Atlas]. Along with trustworthy geysers, these areas encompass some of the most treasured lands left in the country: the dense Eastern forests of Appalachia, the red rock canyons of Utah and the rugged mountain ranges of Alaska. They're also vital sanctuaries to a variety of species found nowhere else on Earth. And it falls to the federal government to protect them.

The federal government, however, is also saddled with meeting the public's expectation of economic growth possible on that land. This may explain why it already leases 44.5 million acres to oil and gas companies -- a total of 77,000 producing wells [source: The Wilderness Society]. In fact, people are prospecting for oil at this moment in places like Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, the Rainey Preserve in Louisiana and Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming.

Yet because experts estimate that more than half of the natural gas available in the U.S. is buried beneath federal lands, oil companies want more. Right now, acquiring a lease and gaining drilling access can be a lengthy process, but what if big oil had a blank check to drill on U.S. federal land?

­Can oil rigs and the environment coexist? The answer is both yes and no, depending on whom you ask. Some detractors, of course, say oil and wildlife just don't mix. However, proponents argue that new technologies enable them to drill "smarter, farther, deeper, and cleaner" than ever before [source: U.S. Department of Energy]. Find out about those new technologies next.


Cleaned Up Oil Drilling

Some animals, like the cattle here, don't even seem to notice the oil rigs.
Some animals, like the cattle here, don't even seem to notice the oil rigs.
David McNew/Getty Images

In 2000, biologists noticed something very strange about some of the frogs in Alaska's Kenai Refuge. Many of them were missing eyes and had missing or deformed legs and feet. The likely culprit: toxic chemicals released by oil companies.

Partly due to incidents like the one at Kenai, the term "environmentally friendly oil drilling" often seems like an oxymoron. Yet it's just what the oil industry is claiming as it seeks to gain access to more land, and it's not just clever spin. So what would happen to the environment if U.S. federal lands were open to drilling? Oil companies say not that much.


Oil companies have cleaned up their act over the past several decades: Drilling pads now take up 80 percent less space than they did 30 years ago, and thanks to adv­anced discovery and drilling techniques, the same amount of oil can be recovered each year with 22,000 fewer wells [source: U.S. Department of Energy].

While failures like the one at Kenai may haunt the industry for years to come, drilling has its success stories, too. At the Alpine Field in Alaska, for instance, workers travel on ice roads instead of gravel roads that could damage the tundra. When the ice melts, they use helicopters to transport equipment. To minimize disturbances to wildlife, pipelines are placed at least 5 feet (1.5 meters) above the ground.

In addition, new satellite, aerial and other oil locator technologies precisely pinpoint oil deposits and reduce the need for drilling repeated holes, while horizontal and directional drilling techniques enable access to multiple wells from a single drill pad. Special computer-guided flexible pipes can move horizontally underground for up to 5 miles (8 kilometers). All told, the entire Alpine Field drilling operation takes up 100 acres of the 40,000-acre site [source: Satchell].

Such positive steps aren't isolated to the Alpine Field, either. Elsewhere, prospectors are eliminating their production of toxic wastes by reusing drilling fluids or using environmentally friendly substances to stimulate oil flow. They may also use lined waste pits to prevent toxic leaks or ship their waste offsite.

The improved measures extend to the drilling's aftermath as well. Instead of capping wells at the surface, many companies now plug them up below ground and restore areas to near original condition. Many offshore drilling platforms, for example, are now artificial reefs teeming with marine life. Wildlife doesn't have to wait to return until after the show is over, though. At some active sites like the Rainey Preserve in Louisiana -- the largest wildlife sanctuary owned by the Audubon Society -- species like the endangered Attwater prairie chicken continue about their business undisturbed.

­Despite such positive steps, though, others continue to paint a different picture of oil drilling's impact on the environment. Find out why they're not convinced next.


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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  • Environmental Working Group. "Who Owns The West? Oil and Gas Lease­s." (July 25, 2008) http://www.ewg.org/oil_and_gas/execsumm.php
  • Lentfer, Jack. "Written Testimony For House Committee On Resources Hearing On Republican Energy Bill 'Energy Security Act'." July 11, 2001. (July 22, 2008). http://www.defenders.org/resources/publications/programs_and_policy/habitat_co nservation/federal_lands/arctic/testimony_on_polar_bears_and_oil_development_ in_the_arctic_refuge.pdf
  • McManus, Reed. "Wish You Weren't Here - environment and oil drilling." BNET. July 2001. (July 23, 2008) http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1525/is_4_86/ai_76285330
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  • Nixon, Robin. "Oil Drilling: Risks and Rewards." Live Science. June 25, 2008. (July 25, 2008)http://www.livescience.com/environment/080625-oil-drilling.html
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