You hear a lot in Washington about the plight of the middle
class. Politicians are often quick to condemn any policy they claim
will help the rich but harm middle-class workers.
But it's a different story when it comes to drilling for oil in
Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). You hear little
concern about continuing a policy that benefits an elite group of
wealthy tourists while denying a century's worth of fuel to
millions of households.
Little, if anything, vexes Americans today as much as the high
price of gasoline. If members of Congress really cared about the
middle class, they would open up ANWR and dispense with the phony
tears and lip service. Politicians who dismiss opportunities to
lower gasoline prices while professing great concern over tight
family budgets are too busy protecting the privileged to care that
they're choking economic freedom.
According to figures from the Environmental Protection Agency
and the Department of Transportation, every dollar increase in the
price of gasoline costs the average household about $1,100 per
year. So, the $2 increase in the last two years adds $2,200 to
their annual gasoline bill. Goodbye, summer vacation.
Unless, of course, you're a member of the well-heeled elite who
visit ANWR. At 19 million acres, it's bigger than 10 states, such
as Maryland, Massachusetts and even West Virginia. But in a good
year, about 1,700 tourists visit the refuge. That's only one-fourth
the numbers who visit Ohio's Cuyahoga Valley National Park on an
In the early 1990s, when annual visits approached 2,000, many of
them questioned whether the refuge could handle that many people
and still provide a high-quality experience. One tour operator
said, "You're not getting what you go up there for if you end up
sharing the river with 20 other people and jockeying for
Some people are hard to please. If all the visitors went on the
same day, they could each have more than 10,000 acres to
But there will be little need for ration coupons to cap the
number. Travel agency Web pages show that low-end packages to ANWR
are $3,500 per person plus airfare to Fairbanks. With the cost of a
one-week family vacation exceeding $20,000, there's no reason to
expect much of a stampede.
Bear in mind, too, that drilling today isn't the oil-spewing
mess it was 50 years ago. The caribou herds don't care - their
population in the nearby North Slope is greater now than before oil
started pumping in the 1970s. Besides, most tourists don't go to
the one-tenth of 1 percent of ANWR where the oil would be drilled.
So the harm (an interrupted vista) is to only a fraction of this
select group of tourists anyway.
What about the oil? Estimates of the reserves vary from 5
billion to 15 billion barrels. Past experience shows such estimates
are often significantly below the actual amounts found. But even
the intermediate value of 10 billion works out to 420 billion
The average household has two cars, each of which uses 600
gallons a year. A little math shows that ANWR holds enough
petroleum to fill the tanks of all the cars for 3.5 million
households for a full century. For perspective, note only eight
states have more than 3.5 million households.
The question is: Do we provide a necessity for millions of
cash-strapped Americans, or do we stiff these hard-working families
so we can provide a luxury for the rich and few? Drilling in ANWR
would reduce gas prices, reduce payments to suspect oil exporters,
strengthen the dollar. In addition to the balance of trade,
drilling in ANWR would help the federal budget and, more
importantly, the working family's budget.
Unlike anything else, the ANWR debate brings into focus a
legislator's priorities. If lawmakers really want to help the
middle class, they should focus on the millions who would benefit
from additional oil supplies instead of pandering to a wealthy
group of eco-tourists.
David W. Kreutzer
is senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation.