March 14, 2002

March 14, 2002 | Commentary on Energy and Environment

ANWR: Drilling for Answers

Perhaps you think that drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR) would be a great idea. Or maybe you think it's a terrible idea. Either way, shouldn't your elected representative in the Senate have the opportunity to vote on it?

Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle doesn't think so. He opposes the idea of opening ANWR to drilling. But he knows that he doesn't have the votes to prevent exploration of what many experts believe is a vast reserve of high-grade crude, so he's constructed a vast array of parliamentary roadblocks -- all designed to make it virtually impossible for the full Senate to consider a measure that would allow drilling in ANWR.

Sen. Daschle certainly isn't the first person to exploit the Senate's Byzantine rules of procedure to keep the majority from expressing its will. But if he doesn't have a credible alternative to offer on President Bush's initiative to explore for oil in ANWR, he should allow a vote. Surveys show that more than 78 percent of the public would like to see more oil produced domestically, and more than 60 percent, including a large majority of Alaskans, favor exploration of ANWR.

Americans favor ANWR exploration because they don't like being beholden to foreign interests. Yet that's exactly the case when it comes to oil, and the situation has grown worse over the last three decades: We bought 35 percent of our oil abroad when the Arab embargo of 1973 set in. Today, we import 53 percent.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts this figure will increase to 62 percent by 2020 if domestic supplies don't increase. With the United States expecting significant population gains over the next two decades, it's irresponsible to take a pass on what the EIA calls "the largest unexplored, potentially productive onshore basin in the United States."

Absent some action, the energy problem will only worsen. We produced 40 percent less oil in the United States last year than we did in 1970 because of environmental concerns about drilling, refinement and exploration. Yet domestic energy use rose 17 percent through the 1990s, and we now import 10 million barrels per day.

All President Bush has asked is that oil exploration take place on 2,000 acres within ANWR - itself 19.5 million acres in size. That's a tract about the size of a big-city airport in an area the size of South Carolina with a population of fewer than 2,000.

He's not asking that oil companies be allowed to foul the land. Most Alaskans realize this, which is why one recent poll shows that 78 percent of them approve of the president's plan. They've watched the huge north slope oil field at Prudhoe Bay in production for 27 years now, and they've seen the environment thrive. They've seen the Porcupine Caribou herds -- which many environmentalists predicted would be wiped out once the oil companies arrived -- increase fivefold in number in those 27 years. Alaskan pollster David Dittman has suggested that more oil seeps out of cars each day in the average Wal-Mart parking lot than has been spilled in Alaska in more than a quarter-century.

Sen. Daschle doesn't have to like these facts. He doesn't have to become a cheerleader for ANWR. But he should recognize that we need this oil to reduce our dependence on imports, that we can collect it safely with little damage to the environment, and that a majority of Americans would like to give ANWR a chance.

The Senator needs either to put forth a miracle solution -- one that preserves our American way of life but sharply curtails our dependence on foreign oil -- or he needs to let the Senate vote on ANWR.

Charli Coon is a senior policy analyst for energy and the environment at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Distributed nationally on the Scripps Howard wire