Girgenti: Help protect the Arctic Wildlife Refuge

R. Colin Fly

Recently, President Bush has supported the idea of drilling for oil along the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with the intent of lessening American dependence on foreign oil. For a variety of reasons, drilling in the region is not only a bad idea, it’s also wasteful and misleading. Members of Congress who support opening up the refuge to drilling insist that it is the only solution to problems such as the rolling blackouts which plagued California last summer. Sadly, this assertion is not based on the facts.

The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the purest wilderness left in the United States, untainted by human development. According to the Fund for Public Interest Research, it is the home to innumerable sensitive plant and animal species, including polar bears, musk oxen and caribou.

The Gwich’in, a Native American tribe, links its survival to the caribou that migrate into and out of the region every year. Some birds spend half of each year living in Florida and the other half living in this federally protected region. All of this beauty and life is being threatened by a coalition of big oil companies, led by BP-Amoco, who want to drill for oil.

The coalition of oil companies, whose primary goal is not to give the United States energy independence but rather to increase the salaries of their CEOs, would need to build oil derricks, roads and pipelines along the coastal plain. The coastal plain also happens to be one of the most ecologically sensitive areas in the region, according to FFPIR. As a result of the drilling, the ecosystem would be destroyed, resulting not just in the deaths of many animals and plants, but also in the destruction of the way of life of the Gwich’in. For what purpose would Congress allow drilling along the coastal plain? If drilling is approved, Congress would be authorizing the oil companies to spend the next eight to 10 years building up the infrastructure necessary to bring the United States enough oil to last all of six months or less.

The oil companies argue, correctly, that the pipeline itself will be nonintrusive, taking up a minimal percentage of the region. However, the true costs come when one considers that for eight to 10 years the workers building the pipeline will need to be housed in the middle of nowhere. They will need to have food brought in; they will need to have someplace to deposit their garbage; they will need recreational activities.

Roads, houses, stores and various other things will need to be built to keep the workers alive. Before the work is done, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will bear more resemblance to a city than to a pristine wilderness. The impact of those eight to 10 years of exploration and building is virtually incalculably high.

The Gwich’in natives will be forced to work for the oil companies in various positions, such as convenience store clerks, giving up their preferred traditional lives, just to survive after this oil invasion. And once the pipeline is completed, the caribou will not come anymore and all the jobs brought in by the oil companies will have evaporated. These people will be condemned to death by oil drilling.

Is it worth it to kill off a people and to destroy the ecology of this section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for such a small payoff, one worth only six months of oil? Does it make sense to let the oil companies potentially spill oil around the coastal plain, killing untold numbers of animals and plants and rendering the soil dead? Should Congress really expect that the oil companies are going to be able to engage in all this work in the region without seriously damaging the ecosystem? The answer to these questions should be no. Destroying a people’s way of life and a sensitive ecosystem is far too high a price to pay for four to six months of oil.

Anyone who feels strongly about this or any other environmental issue should go to the Center for Peace and Justice in the basement of Sullivan Hall and sign up to help out on Earth Day. There is an Earth Day committee, set up to organize activities for Earth Day. Also, the Villanova Environmental Group is trying to re-form next year, and anyone interested in joining should contact Melissa Wibbens.

The environment does not belong to the oil companies or to the government, but to everybody and it’s up to everybody to protect it.