Environmentalists seldom practice what they preach. Al Gore’s home uses enough electricity to power a small town. And the National Audubon Society permits oil drilling in wildlife sanctuaries.
The most emotive argument against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is conservation. The barren coastal plane that is the object of a fierce political battle in Washington is home to 42 mammal species, 36 species of fish, and over 160 species of birds.
Environmental groups such as the National Audubon Society say it will devastate the wildlife in the area. NAS owns several properties in other wildlife refuges. And they permit drilling on their own land. One of these properties is in the Paul J. Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary in Vermillion County, Louisiana And the other in the Bernard N. Baker Sanctuary in Calhoun County, Michigan.
"40 percent of the loss of wetlands in Louisiana is impact from oil drilling," says Barry Kohl, the President of Louisiana Audubon Council. "The drilling of oil and gas in Louisiana is from an age when the wetlands were considered wastelands." He says comparing drilling in ANWR to drilling done in Louisiana is like comparing to extremes that are totally disconnected. The arctic wetland is much more vulnerable because the growing season there is less than 3 months out of the year the Louisiana vegetation has a year long growing season.
The drilling in the Rainey Sanctuary dates back to 1958 when Audubon permitted for 12 wells. Two of these wells were never drilled and another eight where dry. The two remaining wells were plugged up in 1967 and 1979. The mineral rights leases expired in 1999 and Audubon has no intent to renew them.
Edmond Mouton, a biologist with the Louisiana State Wildlife Refuge which is adjacent to the Rainey Sanctuary, says that the drilling in the Marsh Island Wildlife Refuge there has been strict drilling protocols since the 1950’s in order to preserve the integrity of the refuge.
"Louisiana is riddled with oil and gas canals," he says. "In certain areas drilling is only permitted in certain seasons as to not disturb wildlife during key times and we minimize the use of seismic surveying."
In addition to this, the state only permits lighter drilling equipment and force the oil extractors to use directional drilling from existing canals to avoid stress on important habitats.
"This is sufficient to secure the integrity of the refuge," says Mouton.
The two wells that were drilled in the Baker Sanctuary with permission of the Michigan Audubon Society were started in the 1970’s. The first hole, well 16-1 was dry. However the second well, which was drilled at a slant from the dry hole was successful and extraction started in 1981.
"This drill is in an area we call the Southern Miagran Reef Field," says Mike Bricker with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. "The oil deposits stems from a time when Michigan was tropical and is found in isolated deposits all over the landscape."
He says the Audubon society negotiated a narrow window of drilling to protect species during seasons where the wildlife was particularly vulnerable, but that the extraction company follow the same safety procedures as any regular drilling project would be required.
Those standard practices include piping inside the drill hole to prevent contamination of the groundwater and plastic sheets underneath any equipment. Bricker says the department has not had any reports about pollution problems for the Audubon well while it was in operation. The last month of operation was in October 1993 and the Audubon Society had extracted 92,242 barrels of oil when the well was closed.
Bricker says that this would not have been possible in any of the wildlife refuges managed by the State of Michigan. It was possible for the Audubon Society to drill because the land was privately owned.
Kaktovik is the only community located within the coastal plain of ANWR where the drilling will take place. It consists of about 300 people, most of them Inupiat. The Inupiat economy is mostly based on hunting and fishing.
Marie Kaveolook, a resident of Kaktovik is not impressed with the double standards of the environmental activists. She says the residents have lived here for hundreds of years of "whatever God gave us."
The community recently added a fire station and clinic, but that the ANWR drilling will add much needed jobs to the community. She hopes they will be able to add a nursing home for the elders when the drilling starts. They are currently being sent to homes in Fairbanks and Anchorage, and the roundtrip flight to Fairbanks is prohibitive at $700. She says it was only a few decades ago that the community did not even have light and running water.
"We want progress to come because we have had so much hardship growing up here in the wilderness," says Marie Kaveolook. "People who want to tell us how to manage our land don’t even know we live here."