ANWR Morass Redux

The latest round of statements about drilling for oil under the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) are finally getting a bit more rational.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Monday he would consider tapping oil from Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by drilling outside its boundaries if it can be shown that the refuge’s wildlife and environment will remain undisturbed.

But Salazar emphasized that the Obama administration stands firm that the Alaska refuge, known as ANWR, “is a very special place” that must be protected and that he is not yet convinced directional drilling would meet that test.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has introduced legislation that would allow companies access to oil beneath the Arctic refuge’s coastal plain through directional drilling from outside the refuge itself. Murkowski contends such drilling would leave the refuge surface land undisturbed, protecting wildlife.

OK, so Salazar is opening the door–you can drill the oil if doing so will leave the wildlife and environment “undistrubed.” I think unharmed is a more rational standard than undisturbed. And Murkowski is also obviously opening the door a bit, but clings to the bit more unreasonable “leave the refuge surface land undisturbed, protecting wildlife.”

You don’t have to leave the land undisturbed to protect wildlife. Habitat can be both more delicate and more resilient than people think. What actions in a given area will actually harm habitat and wildlife is an empirical question. The door Salazar and Murkowski are opening hear needs to be a bit wider, to allow a rational look at if there are ways to extract the oil under ANWR without doing harm to the habitat there, a rational look based on objective measures and science.

Such approaches are commonplace on lands held by private conservation groups. In Reason’s Policy Brief Digging Our Way Out of the ANWR Morass, Michael DeAlessi laid out how it might work in ANWR

If drilling in the ANWR must meet a set of environmental performance measures, then industry can use them as a basis to plan its operations, and environmental groups will have not only the assurance that a certain level of environmental protection will be met, but the leverage to hold industry and government to those standards.

. . .

It is time for the ANWR debate to move forward and leave the bickering behind. Uncertainties over just how many barrels of oil will be recovered or what new technologies may allow will never be resolved. We do, however, have the management/performance tools and the guiding principles of ENLIBRA to work with to ensure that whatever development does take place is done so in an environmentally responsible manner.

Some Possible Performance Measures for ANWR (and other public lands)

Many performance measures are site specific, and the following list is very much a work in progress.
ââ?? Increases or decreases in specific species population numbers over time; likely species include porcupine caribou, musk ox, grizzly bears, wolves, and many species of birds;
ââ?? Well-defined recovery targets for these species, such as minimum population size over a specific area;
ââ?? Increases or decreases in other species that may be common or unthreatened, but which are often good indicators of overall ecological health;
ââ?? Increases or decreases in acreage of specific wildlife habitat types;
ââ?? Increases or decreases in invasive species over a specific area;
ââ?? Specific measures of water quality such as parts per million of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen;
ââ?? Specific measures of pollution releases; and
ââ?? Percentages of targeted habitat that meets specific criteria for ecological health.