Geotimes Logo POLITICAL SCENE  July 1998 

Anticipating the Issue Cycle: Oil estimates and ANWR

by David Applegate

Just as nature works in cycles, so does that most unnatural of phenomena: Washington politics. The most familiar are the election cycle, the budget cycle, and alas, the scandal cycle. But transcending all of them is the issue cycle: the rhythmic waxing and waning of policy matters before Congress.

In some cases, the length of an issue cycle is initially determined by a law that requires a program to be reauthorized within a set number of years. The expiration of the original bill then signals the start of a series of cycles that may or may not lead to reauthorization. For example, authorization for the Superfund program ran out in 1994. Three successive Congresses have sought to reauthorize Superfund, each time building on the compromises forged in the previous term. It now appears likely that the 106th Congress will convene in 1999 with Superfund reauthorization on its agenda, still hanging in limbo.

Where reauthorization is not a factor, cycles represent a balance between unresolved conflicts and the reality that any given Congress can only address a limited slate of issues. Those wondering how many cycles can elapse before some issues get resolved are referred to the ongoing efforts to reform the 1872 Mining Law.

One current example with particular relevance for geoscientists is the debate over opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for petroleum exploration. Since 1980, this topic has resurfaced every three-to-four years and shows little prospect of near-term resolution. When the issue last peaked in 1995, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) came under fire for a hastily prepared assessment of the petroleum resources likely to exist in the area. In an effort to anticipate the next peak in the debate and avoid that same fire, the USGS has spent the last three years developing its most thorough assessment ever. This attempt to provide information before rather than after an issue peaks is commendable, but the mixed political reception that the Survey has received says a great deal about the limited role of science in this politically volatile issue.

To Drill or Not to Drill
Located in the northeast corner of Alaska, adjacent to the North Slope oilfields of Prudhoe Bay, ANWR extends from the high peaks of the Brooks Range across the coastal plain to the Beaufort Sea. In 1980, Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which transferred vast amounts of federal land to Native Alaskans and the state while reserving other areas, including ANWR. A portion of the coastal plain within the refuge, known as the 1002 area after the relevant section number in the original act, was set aside for possible future petroleum exploration. In 1987, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) made a mean estimate of more than 3 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil beneath the 1002 area. A 1991 study by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) increased that figure to 7 billion barrels. That same year, BLM incrementally increased its mean resource estimate, but dramatically raised the probability of economic success to nearly 50 percent. With those odds, ANWR appeared to present a major opportunity for resource development.

The 1994 Republican takeover of Congress put Alaskans in control of the House and Senate committees responsible for petroleum issues. Both Senator Frank Murkowski and Representative Don Young were eager to see new development on the North Slope in order to offset production declines at Prudhoe Bay and maintain the viability of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. As added incentive, the United States had just reached the point where it was importing a majority of the oil it consumed. As a result of the efforts of Murkowski and Young, opening ANWR for exploration was included in a 1995 omnibus budget bill.

At roughly the same time, the USGS released its decadal assessment of onshore U.S. oil and gas resources. With interest in ANWR peaking, the Secretary of the Interior asked the Survey to quickly reassess the 1002 area, based on its regional-scale Alaska assessment. New data suggested that both the primary source rock pinched out beneath the 1002 area and burial temperatures were generally higher than optimum for oil formation. The Survey, therefore, announced a mean estimate of economically recoverable resources of less than a billion barrels. Moreover, the USGS reported that at the 95 percent confidence level, there might not be any economically recoverable oil. Given that these numbers came from an administration implacably opposed to opening ANWR, they were greeted with considerable skepticism, and the USGS scientists came under fire for their conclusions.

New USGS Estimates
The budget bill was ultimately vetoed by President Clinton, who cited the ANWR provision as one of the reasons for the rejection. Although the issue subsided, the USGS began a comprehensive assessment of the 1002 area, using all available data -- including several nearby wells, reinterpreted seismic data, and other new information. The results of that effort were unveiled in May at the AAPG Convention in Salt Lake City.

Although not directly comparable to the earlier assessments, the results showed an overall increase in estimated in-place reserves, with several newly identified reservoirs in the western part of the 1002 area offsetting the 1995 findings of decreased reserves in the east. The mean estimate of 3.2 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil is similar to the 1987 figures.

One would think that by doing a thorough and objective job, getting external review of the methodology, and preparing the report before the next maximum of the issue cycle, the Survey would avoid much of the criticism that it experienced in 1995. But what have the scientists earned for their troubles? Before the report was even out, the administration was downplaying its significance and emphasizing the absence of major reservoirs similar to those at Prudhoe Bay. In Congress, proponents of opening ANWR gave muted support for the higher estimates, but opponents loudly questioned why the assessment was developed in the first place, given that ANWR is a dead issue (i.e., not at peak cycle).

This last reaction does not address the science, but rather reflects the fact that opposition to opening ANWR in contrast to its support does not depend on the estimated amount of oil in the refuge. To many in Congress, ANWR is "America's Serengeti," a last wild place where caribou herds and polar bears roam. Even the most low-impact, responsible drilling would not be acceptable to them. Given such implacable opposition, is the issue really dead? Certainly not. Indeed, it will cycle to the fore again and again until the drilling begins or we are all driving solar cars.

David Applegate
AGI Director of Government Affairs
Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program
For more information on this topic and other issues, visit the AGI Government Affairs Program web site at The new USGS assessment of ANWR is available at

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