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Protecting an Arctic treasure from the oil companies

By Bruce Babbitt,

Bruce Babbitt was interior secretary during the Clinton administration.

In the summer of 1998 I went to Prudhoe Bay, a major oil field on the North Slope of Alaska, prepared to listen carefully to oil companies eager to expand into the wilderness regions of the western Arctic. My priority was protection for Teshekpuk Lake, a large, aquamarine body of water at the center of globally important wetlands that draw nesting and breeding birds migrating from as far south as Chile and Argentina.

The main environmental concern was the building of roads across the fragile expanses of tundra. Roads always beget more roads, generating networks that eventually destroy the wilderness character of the land and threaten wildlife, caribou herds and molting geese temporarily incapable of flight. I wanted to see firsthand if it would be possible to implement a new concept of roadless oil development.

Inspecting the development at Prudhoe Bay, I soon discovered that it was indeed possible. Atlantic Richfield and the other companies showed our group drilling pads and pipelines that had been built without conventional roads. They touted a roadless development strategy that would use temporary ice roads traversed in winter by special vehicles called rolligons. Helicopters could provide additional transport capacity, they said. And by summer the ice roads would melt away, leaving unbroken expanses of tundra wildflowers.

Given this technology and oil company assurances that there was no need to ever build permanent roads across the dynamic, ice-scoured Colville River and into the western Arctic, we began planning for oil exploration in defined areas within the region.

Fast-forward to 2011. Last month the Obama administration inexplicably abandoned any requirement to use this demonstrated roadless technology when it granted a permit to ConocoPhillips, successor to Atlantic Richfield, to cross the Colville River with four permanent bridges and to bulldoze roads into the western Arctic.

Why Conoco has chosen to forget its past assurances is not hard to imagine: A permanent and expanding road network may be marginally cheaper than traveling by air and on ice. But what motivated the Obama administration to grant this unnecessary concession, at such huge environmental cost, is less clear.

Whatever the genesis of the decision, it is not too late to remedy the mistake. Construction has not started, and the administration has time to modify the Conoco permit to eliminate the roads and to instruct the company to use its demonstrated technology to preserve the tundra, wetlands and wildlife.

The apparent ease with which Conoco changed its position also underscores the necessity for permanent protection of the Teshekpuk Lake ecosystem. The administration, to its credit, has agreed not to grant oil leases around or in the lake. (By contrast, the George W. Bush administration had proposed issuing oil leases for drilling in the waters of the lake.)

As things stand, a future administration could readily reverse President Obama’s decision to at least protect the immediate vicinity of the lake itself. The only way to ensure the future of the Teshekpuk ecosystem, and safeguard the millions of migratory birds that rely on the region, is legislation: A wilderness designation could protect a Teshekpuk Wildlife Refuge. Even if it is unlikely such legislation would be passed in this Congress, the president still has the power to improve the odds for permanent protection. He can and should request that Congress pass protective legislation as a precursor to any additional oil leasing in the western Arctic.

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