- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 24, 2001

Electricity shortages are dimming economic prospects across the country. California is experiencing rolling blackouts. In the heart of this darkness, eco-radicals still decry "The horror!" "The horror!" of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

Located on the inhospitable, mosquito-infested North Slope of Alaska, ANWR contains an estimated 10.4 billion barrels of oil and vast reserves of natural gas. That dark fuel could be lighting the economy. During two weeks of rolling blackouts in January, Energy Secretary Spence Abraham estimated that Californians lost $2.3 billion "in wages, sales and productivity." The National Association of Manufacturers estimated that rising fuel prices cost the economy nearly $115 billion last year. That means that previously black bottom lines are now bleeding from lost wages, layoffs and unemployment.

Mr. Abraham believes that we are in the heart of a crisis in energy supply that is likely to last for decades. Nor will renewables help much. A recent report from the Department of Energy projected that in 2020, non-hydro renewables will make up roughly the same fraction of U.S. energy consumption that they do today.

The economic darkness could be lifted by resources procured in the wilderness area of ANWR, if we have the will to bring them to civilization.

No one argues that energy production is a perfect process. The dictum, "Those who like sausage and respect the law should not watch either being made," could be applied to energy production, since all known energy sources come with drawbacks and environmental costs. Windmills have been called "condor Cuisinarts" by California's Audubon Society, solar panels don't work on cloudy days, and fossil fuels combust into unfortunate gasses that cause costly corrections in presidential policy.

Such tradeoffs make drilling on the coastal plain of ANWR an enlightened choice. In the first place, fossil fuels (read: energy) have to come from somewhere. Nor is the coastal plain of ANWR a pure wilderness. A small community of Inupiat Eskimos, living in the village of Kaktovik, mark the plain, in addition to military installations.

While the natives may have a few Kodiak encounters, they are unlikely to enjoy many Kodak moments since the area is dark, frozen and barren for much of the year. Even environmental historian William Cronon acknowledged in the New York Times, "The part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge whose fate is now being debated is flat, boggy terrain of the kind most of us probably associate more with mosquitoes than with sublimity."

Most residents of Kaktovik depend on caribou for sustenance, and yet they support ANWR drilling. They are represented in Juneau by Reggie Joule, Democrat and Inupiat, whose district encompasses much of ANWR. Mr. Joule also favors drilling. At a recent meeting of Alaska legislators who had come to Washington to lobby for ANWR drilling he said, "The whole state of Alaska is an ecological wonder. And we have shown that no matter where you do development in our state, we do it first with an environmental look at where we are doing things and how we are doing things. Those of us who live a subsistence lifestyle … we will still have the availability to those fish and wildlife resources when everybody is gone."

One of the reasons that the wildlife will not leave is that only 1/10,000 of the area, 2,000 acres of the 19.6 million within the refuge, is likely to be lit by oil rigs. This is the equivalent of building Dulles airport in South Carolina.

Moreover, much of the Alaskan wilderness is already federally protected. Fifty-seven million Alaskan acres, an area which by itself would be the 11th-largest state in the nation, have already been so designated. No development no matter how enlightened is allowed in such areas.

Besides, the wildlife on the north Alaska slope appear to have had no problem adapting to the oil field that lights Prudhoe Bay. As Mr. Abraham pointed out, "The herd in the Prudhoe Bay area grew more than nine-fold over the past 20 years to an estimated 28,000 in 2000." This is good news to wolves and grizzly bears, both of whom are predators of caribou. Indeed, the preponderance of evidence suggests that the ecosystem along the North Slope will more than support the small footprint that drilling in ANWR will leave.

That oil could help lighten U.S. dependence on foreign oil, which is currently above 50 percent. That dependence gives Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries the ability to bleed consumers white, since U.S. citizens are already spending $300 million on imported oil each day, according to Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski.

Domestic oil productivity has continued to fall, even as foreign dependence has gone up. A report from the Department of Energy pointed out that if these dark trends continue, 65 percent of U.S. oil will be imported by 2020.

There are other costs as well, since unless they have been well-trained in an Earth Liberation Front guerrilla camp, the average member of the Arctic wilderness is unlikely to attack humans in the area. This makes it a far safer place to procure oil than the bright sands of the Persian Gulf.

Alaska State Rep. Eldon Mulder recently pointed out, "While at the same time that we're flying hundreds of thousands of sorties over Iraq to impose sanctions, at the same time, we're importing [Saddam Hussein's] oil, thus making us more dependent on his oil. How many more lives will be put at risk by this greater dependence on foreign oil?" Mr. Abraham pointed out that the oil in ANWR could free the United States from more than 50 years of oil imports from Iraq.

It comes down to this choice: drilling in the heart of the Alaskan darkness, or unenlightened preservation in a darkened nation.

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