Drilling opponents question ANWR water use

Posted: Thursday, July 12, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Opponents of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are trying to throw cold water, figuratively speaking, on the pro-drilling forces.

While drilling opponents have made wildlife and wilderness the central debating points, they have recently questioned whether there is enough fresh water to support oil drilling in ANWR's coastal plain.

A drilling advocate, however, says the water argument is based in ignorance and that the challenge of working in an Arctic desert was answered by the oil industry decades ago.

At a House Resources Committee hearing Wednesday, Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., grilled Interior Secretary Gale Norton about water supplies in ANWR, pushing her to fall back on her ''we'll-get-back-to-you'' line.

In her testimony to the committee, Norton touted the wonders of ice roads as a development tool. She visited the North Slope in April and June.

''Ice roads used in the winter do indeed melt away in the summer with little impact,'' she said.

But Holt, a physicist who said he liked to do calculations, estimated that each mile of ice road on the North Slope requires about 1 million gallons of water.

Given that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has estimated that total wintertime freshwater supplies in the ANWR coastal plain at 9 million gallons, Holt said he didn't see how oil companies could deliver on their promises.

''That is one of the concerns and that is something we'd have to deal with,'' Norton said, adding that she would be ''happy to look into'' the issue and provide Holt with more information.

Roger Herrera, a geologist now working for the Alaska-based pro-drilling group Arctic Power, wasn't going to wait that long. Testifying shortly after Norton, he told the panel that the argument was all wet.

Fresh water doesn't have to be drawn from ponds or rivers where fish and other biologically important plants and animals live, he said.

''Snow is fresh water waiting to be melted,'' he said.

All an oil drilling crew on the North Slope must do, he said, is put up a fence and watch the wind-driven snow collect behind it. The snow can be melted and used for both drilling and ice roads, he said.

The technique has been used for decades, Herrera said after the hearing. He said that 80 percent of the fresh water used at the only well ever drilled within ANWR's borders -- the KIC prospect south of Kaktovik -- came from snow.

Herrera acknowledged what most Alaskans know -- it takes an enormous amount of snow to make a little water. Snow isn't the only water source available to drillers, though, he said. At about 2,000 feet below the North Slope surface, saltwater is present in ''unimaginable'' quantities, he said.

Rigs would desalinate the water first. That's not such a high-tech process as it might seem, Herrera said. Some 30 years ago, when Herrera worked on a rig in southern Libya, water was desalinated for use in drilling, he said.

''Nearly all the drilling rigs now have desalination units on them,'' he said.

Fresh water also is preferred over salt water for mixing with the drilling lubricants called ''mud,'' Herrera said.

Even if fresh water is in great supply as Herrera asserts, the ice roads themselves are not without controversy. Holt said he has been told by colleagues that routes are still clearly visible on the tundra after the ice melts.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said the tracks are not from recent exploration activity.

The hearing Wednesday was the first on the national energy strategy bill unveiled by the House leadership on Tuesday. Language to open ANWR, one of five sections in the bill, drew most of the attention at the hearing.

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