Depletion and Conservation of Natural Resources - Minerals And Oil

mining alaska anwr petroleum

Materials extracted from the Earth are needed to provide humans with food, clothing, and housing and to continually upgrade the standard of living. Some of the materials needed are renewable resources, such as agricultural and forestry products, while others are nonrenewable, such as minerals.

The USGS reported in Materials Flow and Sustainability (1998) that a significant trend is the decreasing use of renewable resources and the increasing demand for nonrenewable resources. Since 1900 the use of construction materials such as stone, sand, and gravel, has soared.

The large-scale exploitation of minerals began in earnest with the Industrial Revolution around 1760 in England and has grown rapidly ever since. In a world economy based on fossil fuels, minerals and oil are valuable. The value increases in proportion to demand—which is increasing—and supply—which is decreasing. The result is that the search for minerals and fuel sources has become very aggressive and may be detrimental to the environment.

Mining has always been a dirty industry. As early as 1550, German mineralogist and scholar Georgius Agricola wrote: "The fields are devastated by mining operations … the woods and groves cut down … then are exterminated the beasts and birds.… Further, when the ores are washed, the water that has been used poisons the streams, and either destroys the fish or drives them away."

Centuries later mining still pollutes the environment, only on a larger scale. The Clean Air Act (PL 101-576), the Clean Water Act (PL 92-500), and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (PL 94-580) regulate certain aspects of mining but, in general, the states are primarily responsible for regulation, which varies widely from state to state.

Gold Mining

An extraction process in which cyanide is used for the retrieval of gold from tailings or residues left over from other mining operations has become quite controversial. A series of mishaps around the world have left some communities with polluted lakes, rivers, and streams. A major disaster occurred in Romania on January 30, 2000, when an overflow of polluted mud and wastewater from the Aurul Gold smelter dam sent 100,000 cubic meters of cyanide-tainted wastewater into the adjacent Lapus and Somes Rivers. The cyanide was subsequently carried downstream to the Danube River in Yugoslavia. The spill contaminated drinking water for 2.5 million people and killed more than 100 tons of fish.

Oil in the Arctic

The search for oil has led to the exploration of the Alaskan wilderness. Since the oil supply from the existing North Slope Reserve will steadily decline and then eventually disappear, exploratory oil drillers are focusing their FIGURE 9.9
Northern Alaska, showing locations and relative sizes of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPRA) and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)
attention on the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPRA) in the Arctic wilderness. The NPRA is a 23-million-acre area in northwestern Alaska. (See Figure 9.9.) Geologists consider northern Alaska to be the last, great untapped oil field in North America. Environmental experts fear that oil and gas development will seriously harm the area.

In 2002 the USGS assessed the NPRA and found a significantly greater supply of petroleum (5.9 to 13.2 billion barrels) than previously estimated. Only up to 5.6 billion barrels of this petroleum are technically and economically recoverable at existing market prices. The USGS suspects that there may be as much as 83.2 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered natural gas in the same area. Transportation of this gas to markets would require a new pipeline. There is already a pipeline system in place for oil—the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), which lies between the NPRA and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as shown in Figure 9.9. The ANWR is a 19-million-acre area of pristine wilderness along the Alaska-Canada border. It, too, is being considered for oil exploration, a move strongly opposed by environmentalists.

The future of the refuge lies in the hands of the federal government. The administration of George H. W. Bush made drilling there a major foundation of the national energy policy. Under the Clinton administration oil and mineral development was prohibited within the wildlife refuge. In April 2002, following heated debate, the U.S. Senate killed a proposal by the administration of George W. Bush to let oil companies drill in ANWR. Republicans raised the issue again in the fall of 2003, citing the need for the nation to reduce its dependence on oil imported from the Middle East. As of April 2004 the U.S. Congress has not yet approved drilling in ANWR.

Antarctic Resources—Regulate or Prohibit?


Dispute is ongoing over another polar area—Antarctica—as the southern polar region attracts new interest as a source of petroleum and minerals. Antarctica covers an area of 5.4 million miles—one-tenth of the Earth's land surface—and is larger than the United States and Mexico combined. Geologists believe that considerable quantities of mineral deposits probably exist there, as in all large landmasses. Based on the geology of the region, geologists believe they can find base metal (copper, lead, and zinc) and precious metal (gold and silver) deposits. There are already some known mineral deposits in Antarctica. The huge mass of ice would make recovery difficult, especially in some areas and seasons.


In 1959, 12 countries (Argentina, Australia, Norway, South Africa, Chile, the United Kingdom, Sweden, France, New Zealand, Belgium, Japan, and the United States) agreed to preserve the region south of 60 degrees south latitude, which includes Antarctica, as an area for scientific research and as a zone of peace. They concluded the Antarctic Treaty, giving equal participation in governance to the signing countries "in the interests of all mankind." The treaty established provisions for new member nations; 39 countries representing more than three-fourths of the world's population are party to the treaty.

Seven nations claim territorial sovereignty in Antarctica—Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, and Norway. A 1991 agreement prohibits all mining exploration and development for 50 years, protects wildlife, regulates waste disposal and marine pollution, and provides for increased scientific study of the continent.

Environmentalists want to ban all mining in Antarctica indefinitely. Critics of mining believe the ultimate solution to the problem of mining's destruction of the environment lies in changes in mineral use and a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. These changes, however, would represent huge transformations in the way people live. Whether these changes are justified, and whether many people are prepared to make them, will be a matter of debate for years to come.

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