- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2001

The Golden State is losing some of its luster, as energy prices soar, shortages become more acute, rolling blackouts disrupt lives and businesses and utility companies approach bankruptcy. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton left the White House amid a flurry of last minute orders to close still more federal land to energy exploration, and environmentalists rail at President Bush's secretary of the interior, Gale Norton, for suggesting that a small slice of frozen tundra in Alaska should be opened to oil and gas exploration.

The true source of the California energy crisis may not be readily apparent to most citizens and ideologically hidebound politicians and environmental activists may never admit that they played a major role in causing it. But California's energy woes are due in large part to its misguided, convoluted version of electricity deregulation, and to an even more basic cause: too much demand chasing too little energy production.

For the past decade, California's energy demand curve has risen nearly twice as fast as the national average. Yet, the state produces only 85 percent of the energy it consumes. Indeed, it produces less electricity per capita than any other state, reflecting its failure to build a single new electrical generating plant for some years. The rest of its electricity needs have been met by imports from states that now have little surplus juice to spare, and thus are charging more.

Compounding the problem, the state decreed that only natural gas (no coal) may be burned to generate electricity in fossil fuel plants. Then it led the charge to close state and federal forests and offshore areas to oil and natural gas exploration and development not just in California, but throughout the Western states, on America's Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) and in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). State and environmentalist opposition to drilling continues even now, in the midst of this downward energy and economic spiral.

Government geologists estimate that ANWR could hold 6-16 billion barrels of recoverable oil. That's equivalent to 11-30 years of imports from Saudi Arabia. Turned into gasoline, it would power California's cars and trucks for 18-50 years. Midrange estimates put ANWR's natural gas potential at 4 trillion cubic feet enough to fuel California's electrical generating plants, homes, schools and businesses for several decades. Developing these resources would contribute $50-100 billion to the U.S. economy and create 250,000 to 735,000 American jobs.

Environmentalists naturally claim energy development would "irreparably destroy one of America's crown jewels." Let's look at the facts.

ANWR covers 19 million acres an area the size of South Carolina. Of all this land, only 2,000 acres along the "coastal plain" would actually be disturbed by drilling and development. That's one-twentieth of Washington or about the same as one of the buildings Boeing uses to manufacture its 747 jets.

As to being a "crown jewel," the beautiful mountains seen in all the anti-drilling photos are actually 50 miles away from the coastal plain. The potentially oil-rich area is nothing more than a flat, treeless stretch of tundra.

During eight or nine months of winter, when drilling would take place, virtually no wildlife are present and who could blame the critters for heading south? Winter temperatures drop as low as 40 degrees below freezing. The tundra turns rock solid. Spit, and your saliva freezes before it hits the ground. But the nasty conditions mean drilling can be done with ice airstrips, roads and platforms.

During the summer, caribou return, along with arctic fox, geese, shore birds and the Alaska state bird, Mosquito Giganteus. If ANWR is opened to oil drilling, come summer, the ice airstrips, roads and platforms would melt, leaving only puddles and little holes. And the caribou would do just what they have for 25 years in the middle of the nearby Prudhoe Bay oil field: hang out, eat and make babies. In fact, Prudhoe's caribou herd has increased from 6,000 head in 1978 to 27,000 last year.

Drilling for oil and gas in ANWR and our OCS will not solve California's immediate problem. That will require an honest commitment by its lawmakers and citizens to stop looking for scapegoats, confront the root causes of the crisis and fast-track construction of more electrical generating plants. But drilling is a key component of any sound, rational energy policy for a nation that imports nearly 60 percent of its oil and faces dwindling supplies of natural gas.

If California wants national help in addressing its energy crisis, it could gain much needed support by displaying bipartisan leadership in support of opening ANWR, our OCS, and other public lands to exploration and restoring balance to our environmental policies.

Paul Driessen is a senior fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Fairfax.

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