NRDC Slams Senate Plan to Drill in the Arctic Refuge, Says GOP’s Omnibus Energy Bill Unresponsive to Nation’s Needs

Group’s energy report shows how nation can meet needs without harming pristine wilderness areas or rolling back environmental safeguards

WASHINGTON (February 26, 2001) - Opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development, the cornerstone of the Republican energy bill introduced today by Sen. Frank Murkowski, would not lessen U.S. oil dependence or lower gasoline prices, according to an analysis by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council).

"Drilling for oil in the Arctic Refuge coastal plain makes no sense from an environmental, economic or energy perspective," said Gregory Wetstone, NRDC’s program director. "One can quibble over just how much economically recoverable oil there is under the coastal plain’s tundra, but there’s not enough to make a difference. The real solution to our energy problems is increased fuel efficiency. It would be faster, cheaper and cleaner than drilling in the refuge."

Note: On February 6, NRDC released a comprehensive, balanced plan for U.S. energy policy that would meet the nation’s needs and save consumers billions of dollars annually -- without destroying pristine wilderness areas or rolling back environmental safeguards.

Sen. Murkowski and other drilling proponents claim that the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) concluded that the Arctic Refuge contains as much as 16 billion barrels of oil. In fact, the USGS predicted there is only a 5 percent chance there is that much recoverable oil, and that it is more likely the area holds only about 3.2 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil -- less than what the nation uses in six months.

Moreover, according to NRDC, production of the 3.2 billion barrels would be spread out over the 50 years of the field’s lifetime and would likely peak at 150 million barrels per year in 2027 -- amounting to only 1.5 percent of projected U.S. consumption that year. Given that current U.S. demand for oil, which is more than 7.1 billion barrels per year, is increasing about 2 percent annually, the coastal plain would contribute less than 1 percent of the oil we are projected to consume over the next 50 years.

Oil from the Arctic Refuge also would have no impact on current energy prices or shortages, said NRDC. Even if the Senate Republicans succeeded in opening the coastal plain to drilling tomorrow, it would take at least 10 years for the first refuge oil to arrive at West Coast refineries. And it would take another 15 years before the coastal plain reached its maximum production level.

"The United States cannot produce its way out of oil dependence," said Dr. Daniel Lashof, an NRDC senior scientist. "Oil is a global commodity whose price is determined by international markets. The United States today produces only about 12 percent of world petroleum supplies, so even a significant boost in domestic production would have a marginal effect. In any case, the U.S. share of global production will decline even if oil companies develop the coastal plain because the United States has less than 3 percent of world oil reserves.

"What we can do is dampen U.S. consumption, which amounts to about 25 percent of world petroleum demand," Dr. Lashof continued. For example, increasing average fuel efficiency for new cars, SUVs and light trucks to 39 miles per gallon over the next decade would save 51 billion barrels of oil over the next 50 years -- more than 15 times the likely yield from the Arctic Refuge (see NRDC energy report at for more information).

NRDC does welcome provisions in the Senate Republican energy bill that would provide tax incentives to reduce fuel consumption, but the group ruled out any deal that would allow oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge in exchange for energy efficiency measures. "As long as the Bush administration and Senator Murkowski insist on opening the Arctic Refuge to oil development, the positive elements of their package are nothing more than a Trojan horse," said Charles Clusen, an NRDC senior policy analyst. "If the Republican leadership is serious about enacting energy efficiency provisions, it will have to present a clean bill."

The public, meanwhile, does not support oil development in the coastal plain. According to an Associated Press poll released earlier this month, Americans, by a 53 to 33 percent margin, oppose the plan to explore for oil in the refuge. (An additional 13 percent said they did not know.)