By Ben Goldfarb ’09

Can we keep extracting fossil fuel without ruining the environment?

[Energy] As the world’s easily accessible fuel reservoirs dwindle, the oil and gas industry is turning to new regions and technologies to extract fossil fuels—and driving an energy boom in the process. “Even five years ago, you heard people talking about the possibility of peak oil,” says Lois Epstein ’83, head of The Wilderness Society’s Arctic Program. “You rarely hear that anymore.”

Oil rigs now drill in ever-deeper waters, increasing the risk of major spills. Pipelines rupture almost 300 times per year, releasing toxic substances. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been accused of leaking chemicals and methane into groundwater. Can the United States develop these new energy sources without ruining public lands and waters?

If the answer is yes, Epstein might be the person who figures out how it’s done. Epstein is a rare breed in environmental advocacy: a trained engineer with an intimate knowledge of oil and gas operations. She’s helped develop recommendations for avoiding offshore oil accidents, testified before Congress about fracking and helped guide 2011’s federal Pipeline Safety Act. A framed copy of that bill hangs in her office in Anchorage, Alaska, bearing thank-you notes from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Lois Epstein ’83

Lois Epstein ’83

For Epstein and others, Alaska, endowed with big oil reserves and the country’s most pristine ecosystems, provides a testing ground for the coexistence of energy and the environment. “The conservation community here has accepted that there’s going to be drilling,” Epstein says. “The trick is to protect the most special places.”

In her office in August, Epstein unfurls a map of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, an Indiana-sized chunk of oil-bearing land that’s home to wildlife and indigenous communities. Colorful icons speckle the map, denoting where Wilderness Society biologists have identified caribou herds, waterfowl nesting areas, walrus hotspots and other fauna. A more technically detailed version of this map, she explains, helped the federal Bureau of Land Management identify zones where drilling should be prohibited and areas where extraction could proceed without undue harm to the environment. She traces a finger across a patch of tundra with comparatively little wildlife: “If we’re going to have a pipeline, this is where we could do it.”

Part of Epstein’s job is to convince federal regulators to keep oil and gas rigs out of the Arctic Ocean until the oil industry has technology to match the region’s uniquely challenging conditions. She’s spent years scrutinizing—and publicly criticizing—drilling plans submitted by industry and approved by regulators. According to a congressional report, after the Gulf of Mexico spill in 2010, BP collected only 3 percent of the floating oil. Epstein maintains that in the Arctic’s rough waves, ice floes and darkness, coping with an accident would be exponentially harder. Yet cleanup plans still rely on skimmers and booms, the same methods that failed BP in 2010.

Oil pumpjacks

Oil pumpjacks at twilight. New technologies are driving an energy boom. IStock photo.

“We’re not saying, ‘Don’t do it,’” Epstein says. “We’re saying, ‘Don’t do it until we’re ready.’” But proceeding with caution becomes harder as oil prices climb.

Like most advocates concerned about climate change, Epstein would like to see America’s power come primarily from renewable sources rather than from coal, oil and gas. Yet despite advances in wind and solar technology, fossil fuels still supply around 80 percent of the nation’s energy. As long as we’re extracting energy from the ground, Epstein wants to be sure we’re extracting it properly.

“The big picture is preventing low-frequency, high-consequence accidents, whether it’s the Challenger shuttle disaster or a major oil spill,” she says. “To do that, you need to create a culture of safety within the industry itself.” The evolution of that culture will have repercussions far beyond Alaska.

Goldfarb is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, OnEarth Magazine and elsewhere.