August 8, 2001

August 8, 2001 | Commentary on Energy and Environment

Why Not Explore ANWR?

In northeast Alaska, above the Arctic Circle, the snow seems to cover far more than the land.

It's so thick and deep and cold and hard that you smell next to nothing and you hear even less. Given that part of the state sees no daylight for two months of every year, you don't see a lot either. For nine months of the year, much of the state is a winter wasteland where temperatures regularly reach 70 degrees below zero.

Contrast that with the marshes of south Louisiana. There, the climate -- a mixture of heat and humidity that coaxes sweat from every pore -- produces an overload of sensory input. Hyacinths and water lilies in the rivers and bayous exude a sweet, subtle fragrance, not to mention otherworldly beauty. Snakes and alligators, raccoons and nutria, bream and bass thrive in the area's brown, warm river bottoms.

Yet we're to believe that it's improper to drill for oil in the remote part of Alaska where the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge sits -- where fewer than 1,000 people live in an area the size of South Carolina. And that it's OK -- indeed, it's been going on for nearly 100 years -- to drill in the environmentally sensitive marshes of Louisiana, a state where 4 million make their homes in fewer than 50,000 square miles.

In Louisiana, environmental mismanagement would exact a far higher toll. The livelihoods made off the waterways and swamplands could be lost. The bass would stop biting, the flowers would cease to bloom. Yet, somehow, in the middle of this far more populous, far warmer, far more vulnerable environment, oil production thrives.

Some 46 wells churn daily to help meet America's growing energy needs in Louisiana's Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge, one of the most environmentally sensitive areas in the world. It's so sensitive that road-building techniques had to be revolutionized far beyond anything ever before conceived just to provide highways through the area.

Yet here, the wells produce and the environment flourishes. The Atchafalaya River, considered the world's deepest because no solid bottom ever has been found, continues to be as prized for its catfish as its crude. If oil production and nature can function side-by-side in that ANWR, certainly they can do the same in the other ANWR -- the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

The 2,000 acres in the Arctic refuge -- roughly the size of Washington's Dulles International Airport -- approved for exploration is far short of the 1.5 million acres set aside by Congress for potential exploration and development and a tiny fraction of the 19 million acres included in Alaska's ANWR. But it is an important first step toward tapping what the U.S. Energy Information Agency called "the largest unexplored, potentially productive onshore basin in the United States."

Moreover, the environmental expertise that protects Louisiana's marshlands and other sensitive areas already has shown its mettle in Alaska. When the Prudhoe Bay oil field opened on Alaska's north slope, opponents predicted a sad, pollution-induced end for the porcupine caribou in that area. In the 20 years since, the area's caribou population has grown from 3,000 to 27,500. Clearly, oil drilling and wildlife can co-exist in Alaska as well as along the Atchafalaya.

Good thing, too, because America's energy supply problems aren't going away. We bought 35 percent of our oil abroad when Arab countries threw our economy into turmoil with their 1973 embargo. Today, we import 52 percent. Demand certainly doesn't figure to decrease dramatically as populations -- and uses for power -- continue to grow.

So why drill in ANWR? Because we need the oil; no one questions that. And because America has the technology to extract it in a clean, efficient manner that leaves the land largely as it was found.

Much of the opposition comes from professional environmental activists, most of whom never have set foot in Alaska, much less made it to the extremely remote ANWR. How do they suggest we meet the energy needs of tomorrow?

Why drill in ANWR? Why not?

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Charli Coon is an energy policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy institute.

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