- The Washington Times - Friday, March 17, 2000

What's wrong with this picture? U.S. consumers are facing some of the biggest gas-price hikes in decades, increases that don't stop at the pump but ripple through the economy in the form of higher charges for food and other consumer goods. Meanwhile, the U.S. government is literally standing on the equivalent of billions of barrels of so-far untapped oil in Alaska that could provide them a measure of relief. Worse, if the Clinton administration has its way, no one ever will tap it, either.

The ostensible reason for blocking oil exploration and development there is environmental. When the administration vetoed legislation in 1995 that would have allowed such work on a tiny portion of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt announced the administration had done so in the name of caribou, polar bears, swans, snow geese and musk oxen; any animal, in short, that might conceivably draw a breath in those barren climes and survive.

The fact that the Eskimos who lived in the vicinity of the proposed work backed the exploration as a way of generating tax revenues to support basic sanitation, education and health needs; that workers in the lower 48 wanted it for the jobs it would create; that the United States could have used it to reduce dependence on foreign oil of the kind that leaves consumers here so vulnerable to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) mattered not. The animals came first.

Awkwardly for the administration, there is evidence that far from harming wildlife, oil exploration and development has served as a kind of animal Viagra. When oil development began on the Arctic coast of Alaska at Prudhoe Bay, a herd of caribou located in the area numbered about 6,000. Today the herd in that area has grown to almost 20,000, and there are more caribou in Alaska than humans.

Furthermore the technology at the heart of the exploration has, like the personal computer, progressed so that it can do much more with much less. Says Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski, the "entire development may only disrupt 2,000 acres of the [refuge's] coastal plain a reduction from the 12,500 acres predicted to be impacted in the early 1980s. That is a 'footprint' so small a little over 3 square miles in a region two and one-half times the size of the state of Rhode Island as to likely have no impact on wildlife." Moreover, Alaska is already one giant Motel 6 for wildlife. It contains 58 million acres of land designated as federal wilderness. That's bigger than the combined area of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, West Virginia and Maryland.

Ironically, by blocking oil exploration in Alaska, the administration may actually pose a greater risk to this country's environment. If America can't get oil out of the ground there, it will be that much more reliant on oil tankers whose occasional spills can take a grim toll on wildlife.

Mr. Murkowski, fellow Alaskan Sen. Ted Stevens and 31 other senators, including three Democrats, have co-sponsored legislation that would open a sliver of the plain to development under strict guidelines. Among other things it would place seasonal limits on oil development to reduce its impact on wildlife, particularly during the caribou calving period.

So it's possible to protect both wildlife and U.S. consumers by allowing oil development to proceed in Alaska. If the administration still turns down the proposal, the only protection it will guarantee is OPEC's.

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