To Drill or Not to Drill

It's history class after lunch, and you are just fading off to sleep. A large, fluffy hand reaches down and carries your history teacher away as she continues to describe the presidential election of 1868. Yes, you realize, this is a dream.

Suddenly you are behind the wheel of a massive SUV. You notice that you are running out of gas, and also notice a gas station just up ahead. You drive up to the pump, but find that a majestic Alaskan caribou is standing in your way. He's beautiful, but you need to fill up. It occurs to you that the only way you'll be able to get gas is to run him down.

The teacher shouts your name and you wake up, leaving a small puddle of drool on your desk.

Turns out your dream was also a metaphor—a visual symbol of the kinds of decisions lawmakers, oil companies, oil consumers, and environmental activists are facing today. “To drill or not to drill?” That is the question.

At the heart of the problem is America's hunger for oil. The United States is, by far, the largest consumer of oil in the world—using more than 7,000,000,000 (yep, that's billion) barrels of oil each year. We use it to heat our homes and businesses, and to manufacture plastics, tires, ink, and synthetic fabrics. And mostly, we use it to operate our cars, trucks, and other vehicles (almost five billion barrels each year).

Although we import most of our oil from other countries, we realize that dependence gives the oil-producing countries a certain power over us. We learned that lesson from the oil crisis of the 1970s, caused by a Middle East oil embargo by the OPEC (Oil Producing and Exporting Countries) organization.

However, large oil reserves have been found under the frozen tundra of Alaska, on land which, in 1960, was set aside to be protected as the Arctic National Wildlife Range (ANWR). When parts of ANWR were opened up to drilling in the 1980s, what followed was pollution, truck and drilling noise, chemical waste pits, and the 1989 disastrous oil spill from the Exxon Valdez.

Today, more oil reserves have been located on the ANWR, and sides are lining up to either support or oppose drilling for more oil. The opposing arguments sound like this:

No Drilling!
Haven't we learned our lesson? The ANWR is rich in wildlife. It is home to bears (grizzly and Kodiak—both endangered), wolves, foxes, musk oxen, millions of migratory birds, and caribou. The caribou are of particular concern, since they move over the very areas targeted for drilling in order to reach their traditional breeding grounds.

The environment will be altered for other reasons, as well. You can't just pull oil from the ground—you need drilling platforms, trucking roads, pipelines, and a constant supply of heavy equipment. When will we finally take a stand and say, “Remember the Exxon Valdez? Not again! This last piece of wilderness must be preserved!”

Drill Away!
We now have the ability to limit environmental damage. Trucking roads in the winter can be made of crushed ice, and supplies can be flown in by helicopter in the summer. Furthermore, high-tech drilling techniques mean that fewer drilling platforms need to be built. New pipelines can be elevated five feet off the ground so that wildlife can easily pass under. Also, the pipes will not be fitted with flat valves (which can fail and leak), but rather with loops that will limit the spill from any possible leak. Finally, all waste will be recycled.
No Drilling!
Ice roads solve some problems but create others, since they would require millions of gallons of precious fresh water—water that likely would come from the same sources that serve the plants of the tundra. Also, while high-tech devices help, they cannot eliminate accidents or potential disasters. Besides, who says that drilling companies will follow all of these high-tech guidelines?
Drill Away!
The new oil reserves are estimated to contain from 3.7 to 16 billion barrels of oil. That's anywhere from a six-month to two-year supply. Not only will that oil help curb our dependence on imports, but it will also generate big bucks for the local towns and people.
No Drilling!
Why not just increase the fuel efficiency of vehicles? A minor increase in auto and truck fuel efficiency would save more oil than would be found in the Alaskan reserves.

No doubt this is a tough call. Still, a decision must be made about whether to drill on the ANWR.

Vocabulary

embargo:
A prohibition on trade or shipping, usually regarding a specific place or product.

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Activity

  1. Which side of this debate would you take? Do you think it is more important to increase the domestic oil supply? Or do you think it is more important to preserve the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? Write a paragraph supporting why you would choose one side of this debate. Include at least four supporting statements for your opinion. Use the positioning statements in the article as a starting point, but be sure to include your own opinions.
    [anno: Answers will vary.]