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Black gold rush

Politics | America first-except when it comes to drilling domestic oil

Issue: "Trailer park blues," Nov. 26, 2005

U.S. dependence on foreign oil has buzzed recently to the high end of politically stylish policy issues, Democrats and Republicans alike scrambling to curry favor with talk of conservation, hybrid vehicles, and alternative energy sources. Calls for stateside drilling, however, remain hotly contested-shrouded by opposition from an unyielding environmentalist lobby.

Buried beneath a coastal strip of tundra in northeastern Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), billions of barrels of oil lie untapped, according to consensus geological estimates. President George W. Bush has advocated harvesting that massive reserve but has yet to push through any favorable legislation. Five times various House-approved measures to commence drilling have suffered Democrat-led filibusters in the Senate. Now, a rogue wave of Republicans has jettisoned a filibuster-proof drilling provision attached to a House budget bill.

Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.) called the blockade a move by "moderate Republicans," writing that "the critical value of this Refuge to the arctic and sub-arctic wildlife is undeniable." Environmentalists have long argued that any industrial development of the refuge would hinder a thriving caribou population-though no scientific studies exist to support such a claim. In fact, a recent survey of the Central Arctic caribou herd, which calves adjacent to the Prudhoe Bay and Kupurak oil developments, shows a dramatic increase in population.

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Proponents for drilling contend the near 20-million-acre preserve is large enough to accommodate both industrial and environmental interests. The area tabbed for oil exploration is 1.5 million acres, roughly 8 percent of the total refuge. Development would cover an even smaller expanse, needing just 2,000 to 5,000 acres for minimally invasive oil rigs.

The Senate's five-year budget bill, which includes drilling in the Arctic refuge, already has passed, meaning the provision might reappear when the conference committee seeks to square differences between House and Senate plans. But even should legislators ultimately decide in favor of arctic drilling, whether this year or down the road, oil from the refuge stands little chance of reducing gas prices or foreign dependence any time soon.

Arctic oil rigs would not likely produce a single drop until 2010 and would not reach peak production until 2025. Even then, the estimated 1 million barrels of oil per day would provide only a small fraction of the country's need. Current U.S. consumption averages roughly 21 million barrels per day-a number expected only to rise without radical shifts in the energy market.

Drilling opponents argue that any intrusion into a pristine wilderness habitat is not worth such relatively small returns. "Focusing greater attention on renewable energy sources, alternate fuels, and more efficient systems and appliances would yield more net energy savings," wrote Mr. Bass.

But developing new energy technologies and allowing private oil companies to drill are not mutually exclusive aims. Much of the public opposition to tapping the arctic reserve is rooted more in mistrust of corporate oil than environmental concerns. In recent efforts to pass a Senate bill blocking the federal government from issuing oil or gas leases, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) blasted Republicans for supporting "a sweetheart deal for oil companies that have made a record $30 billion in profits last quarter."

Champions of the free market have celebrated such profits as job-increasing economic stimulants. But the vilification of oil merchants to consumers weary of paying $2.50 per gallon at the pump has proved a powerful political tool. Constituents in several northeastern states flooded their senators' offices with petitions, letters, and phone calls, expressing impassioned opposition to arctic refuge drilling.

Yet most residents of Alaska took no such stand. Surveys show that roughly three-quarters of Alaskans favor drilling in the refuge, many hopeful for the certain economic boon their state would enjoy. Gov. Frank Murkowski has argued that "every barrel of oil we produce in Alaska is one less we must import from overseas." The United States' top suppliers of foreign oil are Canada and Mexico at 1.6 million barrels a day each. Saudi Arabia ranks third at 1.5 million daily barrels-the bulk of which Alaskan reserves could one day replace. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) views that as ample reason to proceed: "America needs this American oil."

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