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Drilling in the Arctic Refuge: The 2,000-Acre Footprint Myth
Oil development would stamp a spiderweb of industrial sprawl across the whole of the refuge's 1.5-million-acre coastal plain.

Proponents of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development continue to make the claim that oil could be extracted by drilling on a mere 2,000 acres of the refuge. Here are the facts that give the lie to this canard.


See what drilling will do
Map: see what drilling will do

President Bush made a speech on March 9, 2005 in which he repeated the widely discredited claim that the oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could be reached by drilling on only 2,000 acres.

"Thanks to advances in technology...we can now reach all of ANWR's oil by drilling on just 2,000 acres," he said. "Two thousand acres is the size of the Columbus [Ohio] airport. By applying the most innovative environmental practices, we can carry out the project with almost no impact on land or local wildlife."

His assertion goes back to two bills that were intended to placate those who reject the idea of turning one of America's last pristine wildernesses into oil fields. In August 2001 and April 2003, the House of Representatives narrowly passed energy legislation (H.R. 4 and H.R. 6, respectively) that would have opened the Arctic Refuge to drilling, but included an amendment "limiting" the oil industry to developing only 2,000 acres of the refuge's 1.5-million-acre coastal plain.

The amendment that introduced the limit, sponsored by New Hampshire Republican John Sununu, stated (Section 6507(a)(3)): "The secretary shall...ensure that the maximum amount of surface acreage covered by production and support facilities, including airstrips and any areas covered by gravel berms or piers for support of pipelines, does not exceed 2,000 acres on the coastal plain."

Close examination, however, reveals that the oil industry could not possibly develop the coastal plain in a compact, contiguous 2,000-acre area, and the way the amendment was worded would open up the entire refuge coastal plain to development, which would damage it permanently. Below is a look at the realities of the "2,000-acre footprint."

Oil Infrastructure Would Spread Across the Coastal Plain

The relatively little economically recoverable oil in the refuge is not concentrated in one large reservoir within a 2,000-acre area but is spread across its 1.5-million-acre coastal plain in more than 30 small deposits, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.1 To produce oil from this vast area, supporting infrastructure would have to stretch across the coastal plain. Networks of pipelines and roads obviously would fragment wildlife habitat. (For a map of what a 2,000-acre oil and gas development scenario on the coastal plain would look like, go to http://www.nrdc.org/land/wilderness/arcticmap_2000acres.pdf.)

The oil field industrial sprawl on the North Slope provides a relevant example. Including drill sites, airports and roads, and gravel mines, it has a footprint of 12,000 acres, but it actually spreads across an area of more than 640,000 acres, or 1,000 square miles.2

Proponents of drilling in the refuge also point to the 100-acre Alpine oil field west of Prudhoe Bay as the state-of-the-art model for developing the refuge. But the 2,000-acre "limitation" would allow 20 oil fields the size of Alpine scattered across the refuge's coastal plain.

Even if the 2,000 acres were contiguous, such an area could cover a lot of ground. For example, the 12-lane-wide New Jersey Turnpike, which stretches more than 100 miles across the state, covers only 1,773 acres.3

The so-called 2,000-acre limitation would have allowed oil development to take up as much area as the following items, which could be connected by a network of pipelines and roads:

  • 1,500 football fields;4
  • 20 Mall of Americas;5 or
  • 52 airport runways, 50 more than the number at Columbus International Airport.6

The House Bills Would Have Opened the Entire Coastal Plain

The House bills would have opened the entire 1.5-million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge to oil and gas leasing and exploration. The so-called 2,000-acre limitation would not have required that the 2,000 acres of production and support facilities be in one compact, contiguous area. As with the North Slope oil fields west of the Arctic Refuge, development could be spread over a very large area.

The 2,000-acre limitation only addressed "surface acreage covered by production and support facilities." In other words, it only includes the area where oil facilities actually touch the ground. Using Rep. Sununu's math, the 37 miles of pipeline at the Alpine oil field west of Prudhoe Bay would take up less than one-quarter of an acre of the Arctic Refuge coastal plain -- where the pipelines' 12-inch-diameter posts hit the tundra.7 The limitation also would not have covered land excavated to bury pipelines.

The 2,000-acre limitation would not have included seismic or other exploration activities, which have significantly degraded the arctic environment west of the coastal plain. The oil industry conducts seismic activities with convoys of bulldozers and "thumper trucks," which drive over extensive areas of the tundra. Meanwhile, exploratory oil drilling requires moving heavy equipment, including large rigs, across the tundra. The limitation would not have prohibited oil companies from drilling exploration and production wells anywhere on the entire 1.5 million-acre coastal plain.

The 2,000-acre limitation also would not have included gravel mines or roads. The House's limitation would have allowed for 20 oil fields the size of the 100-acre Alpine oilfield west of Prudhoe Bay, which required a 150-acre gravel mine and 3 miles of roads. And more roads are planned at Alpine.8 Meanwhile, oil companies in the North Slope oil fields excavated gravel from mines that stretched over 2,000 acres, and then covered 10,000 acres of tundra with gravel for roads, drilling pads and building foundations.9

Finally, development will affect areas well beyond the boundaries of roads, pads and other facilities. The journal Science reported in the late 1980s that the cumulative impact of oil exploration and development on the North Slope has indirectly affected more tundra than what was directly filled or excavated.10 More recently, biologists found that decreased caribou calving within a 2.5-mile zone of pipelines and roads show that the "extent of avoidance greatly exceeds the physical 'footprint' of an oil-field complex."11


1. U.S. Geological Survey, 1999, "Oil and Gas Potential of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge 1002 Area, Alaska, " (U.S. Department of the Interior, Open File Report 98-34); see also, Richard A. Fineberg, "Understanding the U.S. Geological Survey Analysis of Estimated Oil Beneath the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, " Fairbanks: Research Associates (June 20, 2001).

2. Washington Post, "Reluctant Regulator on Alaska's North Slope, " September 13, 2000; GIS analysis, Ecotrust/Alaska Conservation Alliance, Conservation GIS Support Center (2000).

3. There are 1,219 "lane miles" contained in the New Jersey Turnpike (the road itself is 118.5 miles) and all lanes are 12 feet wide. This comes out to 1,773 acres. That number does not include the shoulders because no exact number of miles of shoulders was available. If one assumes that shoulders run along either side of the turnpike for the entire length (118.5 miles) then that would add 287 acres, making the total 2,060 acres (the shoulders are 10 feet wide). See: http://www.nycroads.com/roads/nj-turnpike/.

4. A football field is 360 feet by 160 feet, 57,600 square feet, or 1.322 acres. National Football League, 2001. See: http://www.nfl.com/fans/rules/field.html.

5. The Mall of America is 4.2 million square feet. That equals 96.4 acres (rounded to 100, or 1/20th of the proposed drilling area). See: http://www.mallofamerica.com/moa/servlet/ SMTMall?mid=369&pn=STATIC&frame=main&rs=0&file=General/media_fastfacts.html.

6. Port Columbus (Ohio) International Airport has two runways: one is 10,125 feet long; the other is 8,000 feet long, according to the Columbus Regional Airport Authority. Both runways are 150 feet wide (personal communication with Columbus International Airport by Elizabeth Heyd, Natural Resources Defense Council, on March 14, 2005). The two runways cover a total of 62.4 acres.

7. The 34-mile pipeline connecting Alpine to the oil fields to its east has 2,760 Vertical Support Members (VSMs) while the 3-mile in-field pipeline for Alpine has 450 VSMs. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District, Permit Evaluation and Decision Document, Alpine Development Project, Colville River 18 (2-960874), p. 3 (February 13, 1998); Each VSM is approximately 12 inches in diameter (personal communication John Schoen, National Audubon Society with Alaska Department of Fish and Game (August 2001), which equals 3.14 sq. ft. 3.14 sq ft. X 3210 VSMs = 10,079.4 sq. ft, or roughly one-quarter acre.

8. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District, Permit Evaluation and Decision Document, Alpine Development Project, Colville River 18 (2-960874), p. 2 (February 13, 1998); U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District, Colville River 17 (4-960869) to Nuiqsut Constructors (Alpine gravel pit) (June 24, 1997).

9. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Comparison of actual and predicted impacts of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and Prudhoe Bay oilfields on the North Slope of Alaska, draft report, Fairbanks, p.12 (December 1987); U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Northeast National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska Final Integrated Activity Plan/ Environmental Impact Statement, Tables IV.A.5-3 and 5-5 (August 1998); State of Alaska, Department of Natural Resources (DNR), North Slope lease tracts database, (March 28, 2001).

10. Walker, D.A., P.J. Webber, E.F. Binnian, K.R. Everett, N.D. Lederer, E.A. Nordstrand, and M.D. Walker. 6 November 1987. "Cumulative impacts of oil fields on Northern Alaska landscapes," Science Vol. 238: 757-761.

11. Nellemann, C. and R.D. Cameron. 1998. "Cumulative impacts of an evolving oil-field complex on the distribution of calving caribou, "Can. J. Sool. 76: 1425-1430.

last revised 3.15.05

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