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

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.