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Thursday, March 24, 2005

U.S. geologist 'bewildered' by 2,000-acre drilling number

The Wall Street Journal's Numbers Guy, Carl Bialik, today writes that the U.S. Geological Survey project chief for ANWR expressed "bewilderment" at the oft-quoted statement that only 2,000 acres will be disturbed in the refuge by oil drilling.

The source is Dave Houseknecht, a USGS research geologist and co-project chief for the agency's work in the North Slope of Alaska, which includes ANWR.

Drilling advocates are fond of the 2,000-acre figure, which tends to minimize in the public's mind the potential resource damage that could occur. But Bialik says Houseknecht expressed "bewilderment" at the figure, because no one knows what oil fields will be drilled, and such a small footprint would require more-expensive technology, which would change the calculation of how much oil is cost-effective to recover. "It's difficult to know precisely where discoveries will be made, and what kind of environmental regulations will be in effect, when and if drilling occurs," Houseknecht said.

Also, wells will likely be spread out, and the 2,000 acres covers only the wells and surrounding areas, but not other required elements, like roads and pipelines. Bialik writes that surface area is a lousy way to measure the impact of roads and pipelines, because they're narrow but have the effect of dividing up large swaths of land, potentially affecting wildlife migration. "Saying the pipeline occupies a very tiny footprint is like saying a table occupies only the space the legs take up on the floor," Houseknecht says.