April 1, 2003 | Commentary on Energy and Environment

Time to Take Responsibility

It's not hard to figure out why Congress has yet to vote to allow exploration for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

 

It's the easy way out.

 

You simply declare your love for the environment, your desire that America find some other way to solve its fuel needs-less consumption, more use of alternative fuels, more fuel purchased abroad-and your opposition to fouling the so-called pristine tundra north of the Arctic Circle, and you're all set.

 

But as usual, what's easy is not what's right. And what's right is that America meet its energy needs in the most responsible way possible. That means we produce what we can domestically-and that means we explore ANWR.

It's good for the economy. It's good for national security. And it's even good for the environment.

 

The fact is America's need for oil will continue to climb for at least the next 25 years. We were importing 35 percent of our oil when the Arab embargo hit in 1973. Today, that percentage is 55, and it will be 68 by 2025, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The price of oil-dictated largely by OPEC, a cartel of countries whose desire to accommodate U.S. interests is, to say the least, suspect-has risen from $22 per barrel to $38 in the last year alone, prompting huge price increases at American gas pumps. Depending on how the war with Iraq shakes out, things could get even worse.

 

Affordable energy is vital not only for a healthy economy but also for security.

 

The Middle East, long the main source of foreign oil, could well become more unstable in the years ahead. New areas for oil production include West Africa, which may be even less stable than the Middle East, as well as southern Asia and parts of Russia. The Japanese and Chinese-whose demand is growing faster than ours-figure to snap up whatever emerges from Russia.

 

Moreover, conditions could arise-quickly-that could block our access to oil in any of these areas. With growth in gross domestic product expected to climb by about 3 percent per year over the next 20 years, it's imperative we explore what the U.S. Energy Information Administration calls "the largest unexplored, potentially productive onshore basin in the United States."

 

No, ANWR won't solve all our energy needs. But it could-once it's producing at full capacity-provide up to 1 percent of our needs or as much oil as we buy from the Saudis in 56 years.

 

The idea that domestic oil exploration and a clean environment are mutually exclusive must be discarded. For one thing, no country takes more care than the United States to preserve the environment around energy production facilities. Moving the problem overseas doesn't solve it; it makes it worse. And, contrary to what critics say, our record on extracting oil and maintaining a clean environment in this country is quite good.

 

In Alaska, 78 percent of the population supports drilling in ANWR. Why? Because Alaskans know there have been virtually no problems in the 27 years since oil production began at Prudhoe Bay on the state's north slope. The porcupine caribou herds-which critics claimed would be wiped out by oil exploration-have, in fact, increased fivefold in those 27 years.

 

Let's be serious here. We produced 40 percent less oil in 2001 than we did in 1970 because of environmental concerns about drilling, refinement and exploration. We haven't built an oil refinery in this country in 25 years or opened a nuclear power plant in 20. Yet, domestic energy use climbed 17 percent in the 1990s.

 

This is a formula for disaster, and even drilling in ANWR won't make it go away. But it shows that we recognize the problem and are serious about solving it ourselves.

In ANWR, we're talking about 2,000 acres for actual drilling-the size of a big-city airport-in a park the size of South Carolina that is home to only 1,500 people. If we can't drill there, where in the United States can we begin to drill now? Can we trust rising oil producers such as Nigeria to take better care of the environment than producers here? Do we continue to pretend wind or solar power will solve the problem when, despite a quarter-century of massive federal subsidies, they've captured just 1 percent of the market?

 

Let's be adults here. Let's admit we have a problem and that almost all alternatives-including domestic drilling-must be considered as potential solutions. Let's be responsible. Let's explore ANWR.

 

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

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