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Selling Our Environment for a Barrel of Oil

by Elizabeth Moore
art/Eric Spitler

Don't believe the "big oil" Republicans when they try to convince us that more oil drilling is the answer to our energy problems. Their determination to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling is unnecessary, not to mention costly. And that cost isn't going to hurt only taxpayers, but our entire ecosystem. The fact is, ANWR contains the only stretch of arctic coastline in the United States that is not already open to the oil industry.


Republicans in Congress tell us that when it comes to environmental protection, the risks to the economy outweigh benefits to public health. Perhaps this is because economic benefits are more tangible than health benefits. Economic benefits (re: more money) are also more evident in the short term. We can't see public health benefits right away, so why worry about them? However, when it comes to the question of drilling in the Arctic refuge, the Republicans are wrong on both counts.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there is only a 50 percent chance of finding a six-month supply of oil that would not actually be available for nearly 10 years due to planning and construction. First of all, this is not much of an economic benefit. Secondly, the risks to the environment far outweigh the potential benefits.

In exchange for drilling for a tiny amount of oil that we will not see for ten years (if we see it at all), we risk destroying the habitat of the hundreds of thousands of wild animals that depend on the Arctic Refuge. Developing the coastal plain would involve constructing hundreds of miles of roads and pipelines. In turn, this development would lead to dozens of oil fields that will block wildlife movements and disturb sensitive species.

Other risks include:

  • Toxic waste leaking from pipelines onto the fragile tundra contaminate the wetlands.
  • Rivers and streambeds will be stripped of millions of tons of gravel to be used to construct roads, airstrips, and drill pads. These are the key habitat for fish and wildlife.
  • Heavy equipment, such as helicopters, cargo planes, dump trucks and bulldozers would take over the coastal plain.

The oil industry compares the total size of the proposed oil development footprint to Washington Dulles International Airport. This analogy does not take into account the impact of oil development that would spread mercilessly across the coastal plain.


Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) summed up the Republicans' obscured view of the energy problem quite accurately: "They don't understand what happened in California?" Lott asked. "Don't they understand it's going to happen again this summer, and that we're headed for rolling brownouts and blackouts?" He added, "Do they want to freeze to death in the dark?"

Lott revealed that he would bring up energy legislation "in June or July amongst the appropriations bills." It is highly controversial in part because it would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

On the other side of the debate, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) has spoken of his intent to filibuster the legislation, should it include opening ANWR to drilling. "We need to make it clear to President Bush that this approach to energy policy is unacceptable, and that is why I will -- if necessary -- filibuster any attempt to open the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to this kind of exploitation," he said in February.

Kerry stated that trying to open the wildlife refuge would actually come back to haunt Lott and his GOP colleagues. "The energy policy of this country should not be to drill in a pristine wildlife refuge that provides you a minimal amount of oil for a minimum number of years," Kerry argued. He also stated that opening ANWR "doesn't reduce your overall dependency on foreign oil and contributes significantly to the problems of global warming, air pollution and our dependency on oil itself."

Senator Kerry has proven himself a longtime ally to the environmental movement. His dedication is demonstrated by his 97 percent rating with the League of Conservation Voters. Trent Lott's overall percent rating is less than 10 percent. Since the beginning of Bush's term in office, the Republicans have made clear their intent to roll back state environmental safeguards because they're keeping power plants offline. This is absolutely untrue. As a matter of fact, even utility executives don't blame anti-pollution laws for the crisis. A spokesman for Houston-based Reliant Energy, which operates four Southern California plants, told The Los Angeles Times that assertions that environmental regulations were holding back power production were "absolutely false."

Dr. Joseph Romm, a former Energy Department official who now heads the non-profit Center for Energy & Climate Solutions, has said, "Power plants were not being built in California because the utility industry did not know what the market rules were going to be. Neither siting rules nor pollution measures were a factor. Blaming those laws for today's shortfall distracts from the very real need to balance the state's supply and demand for electricity."


Most observers agree that the primary cause of the energy problem is unexpected growth in the California economy, insufficient investment in new power plants and retail rates that are capped far below the wholesale rate for power.

By no means was the decline in investment in new power plants caused by environmental safeguards. Actually, California's power crisis is a crisis of under-investment. Republicans like to blame the states strict clean-air rules, which they say stopped construction of new power plants and shut down the old ones.

Actually, there are sufficient power plants in the pipeline to meet the near-term demand for power in California. According to a January editorial in the New York Times, since April 1999, well before the current crisis, state regulators approved enough new power plants to increase California's electricity supply by 13 percent.

The very idea that the federal government is considering price caps on wholesale power angers independent electricity producers, some of whom were the Republicans' largest campaign contributors.

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG is a content provider for public interest groups and concerned citizens who are campaigning to protect the environment) analysis of Department of Energy records, California utilities cut funding for consumer efficiency programs in half since 1993 to maximize profits in a deregulated market. These cuts have wasted enough power to supply 600,000 homes a year with electricity. Now, thanks to deregulation, it is up to the state to find ways to reward customers for reducing their energy consumption.

Bush's other answer to the California electricity crisis was, of course, to propose opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. The supply of Alaskan oil is unrelated to the supply of California electricity.

It is ridiculous to think that adding to pollution is going to help the energy crisis. Simple energy conservation measures, as suggested by the Worldwatch Institute (a nonprofit public policy research organization), could save much more oil than the Arctic Refuge could ever produce.


By increasing automobile fuel efficiency standards to 30 mpg, by the year 2020, we could save twice as much energy as the Interior Department believes might be recovered from the coastal plain, according to reports from the Northern Alaska Environmental Center.

The World Watch Institute points out that the amount of energy that annually leaks through windows in the US is equivalent to the amount that moves through the Trans-Alaska pipeline every year. By improving the energy efficiency in buildings, we could decrease national energy use by one-third by 2010. This would save twice the amount estimated to be recoverable from the Arctic Refuge (3.2 billion barrels of oil).

Bush stated that the goal is to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. If this is true, then the answer is definitely not to squeeze every drop of oil from our nation's resources. What will we do when that's gone? The debate should shift from drilling in the ANWR to focusing on research into alternative fuels and clean energy technologies.

Ninety-five percent of Alaska's vast coastline is already open for drilling. Why is protecting a small fraction of this icy paradise so unreasonable? Bush and his Republican allies should reconsider their determination to use the energy crisis as an excuse to roll back environmental protections

The bottom line is, there is absolutely no reason to destroy what is left of the pristine wilderness in ANWR. It won't do America any good; nor will it really help the oil companies who will have to wait nearly 10 years to see a small amount of oil.

A fight with environmentalists over opening the ANWR would likely result in a new round of charges of "extremism" by Bush's opponents. While Democrats with close ties to the energy industry will support Bush's efforts to open ANWR to drilling, some Republicans will side with the environmental community. For example, Sen. Bob Smith (R-NH), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, who is up for re-election soon, has said he doesn't favor allowing oil production in ANWR.

If Bush wants to keep his promise of uniting, he is in position to put forward a constructive solution. But, true to form, he and the other Republicans are more inclined to point fingers at environmental protections and disturb pristine areas in order to put a band-aid on the problem rather than taking real, long-term action.

Elizabeth Moore is a Communications Associate for Environmental Working Group in Washington, DC. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily shared by Environmental Working Group.

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