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August 18, 2008

Arctic Oil and the Privileged Few

By

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 average day.

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 campsites."

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 themselves.

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 gallons.

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.

First appeared in the Washington Times newspaper

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