November 2, 2001

November 2, 2001 | Commentary on Energy and Environment

ANWR Foes: What an Act

Environmentalists are losing the battle over whether to drill for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR). And they're getting desperate.

First, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, says Democrats have suspended discussion on an energy bill to "avoid quarrelsome, divisive votes in committee." For the sake of national unity, he says, they're pulling the plug on debate. It's for the war effort, you see -- and totally unrelated to the fact that ANWR has the votes to pass in the Senate.

And they've hauled out the president himself to condemn the idea. No, not President Bush. He knows America needs to reduce its dependence on foreign oil, that the oil can be extracted with little or no damage to ANWR, and that jobs -- as many as 735,000 of them -- hang in the balance.

No, they turned to President Josiah Bartlett. Or rather, to Martin Sheen, the actor who plays President Bartlett on the TV series "West Wing." Then they foisted on Sheen a script both mystifying and misleading.

"The Arctic refuge," intones Sheen. "Is it worth destroying forever for six months of oil? This is Martin Sheen. Please act now. Together, we can save what's left."

Where to start? "We can save what's left."

What would be "left?" Alaska includes about 192 million acres of parks, refuges, preserves and conservation units -- more than the rest of the United States combined. Of that area, 19 million acres -- an area the size of South Carolina -- is located above the Arctic Circle in the area known as ANWR. Of that area, President Bush proposes opening about 1.5 million acres to exploration (roughly 6 percent of ANWR). Of those 1.5 million acres, only 2,000 -- an area the size of Washington's Dulles International Airport -- would be devoted to drilling.

That means that even if oil workers ruin every inch of that 2,000 acres, 99.99 percent of ANWR and 99.9999 percent of Alaska's parks would be "left."

And what would we be "saving" this land from? Destruction of the native caribou herds? At nearby Prudhoe Bay, they've increased fivefold in the 26 years oil has been produced there.

Damage to the environment? The people who live there know better. A recent poll found 78 percent support exploring for oil in ANWR.

From spills? Prudhoe remains one of the cleanest oil fields on earth. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, which keeps watch on Prudhoe, has found no evidence of environmental degradation. In fact, "there's probably more oil spilled in a Wal-Mart parking lot on a daily basis from oil seeping out of cars than is spilled on the North Slope," says Dave Dittman, an Anchorage pollster.

Then there's the matter of the six-months' supply of oil. Why, critics ask, risk polluting this pristine land for a drop in the bucket of America's energy needs?

But they're assuming all the oil would be delivered at once, which is neither physically possible nor strategically practical. It would, however, provide as much oil over the next 30 years as we expect to purchase from Saudi Arabia in that time. It wouldn't end our need for foreign oil, but it would make us less dependent on it.

About a dozen movie theaters in Washington have agreed to show Sheen's ad. The object is to steer Washington-think to a destination far left of the American people.

But this time the stakes are too high. Last year, the country produced nearly 40 percent less oil than in 1970, primarily because of government barriers to drilling and exploration. In the 1990s, domestic energy use rose 17 percent, but domestic energy production increased just over 2 percent.

With the nation embarked on what could be a lengthy war in the Middle East, our dependence on imported oil -- now at 10 million barrels per day -- never has been higher. New drilling and cleanup techniques expand the amount of oil that can be drilled and reduce the risk to the environment. We need to do what it takes -- including drilling in ANWR -- to enhance our energy security.

Americans understand this, which is why three-fourths want more domestic oil production and nearly 60 percent favor exploration in ANWR. Sounds as if they also know which president seeks to meet our energy needs -- and which is merely a character on a TV show.

Charli Coon is an energy policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

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