- The Washington Times - Friday, March 15, 2002

America's dependence on foreign oil continues to grow. Today, some 55 percent of our daily usage comes from overseas an imbalance that plagues us and threatens national security.
Who is the villain in this growing danger, one that will be worsened once we attack Iraq?
The answer, surprisingly, is Uncle Sam himself. It's not that we don't have ample oil reserves and resources. It is that the federal government, especially Congress, is holding back attempts to increase domestic production in our richest undeveloped oil area Alaska.
The problem goes all the way back to 1959, when the statehood pact signed between Washington and the new state legalized the largest land grab in history. Uncle Sam took 59 percent of Alaska's huge landmass, leaving only 29 percent to the state and the rest to native Americans.
Is Alaska producing much oil, and how much potential does it have?
Alaska now accounts for 20 percent of our domestic production of 3 billion barrels a year. Most of that oil comes to us through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which has plenty of room for more oil at least 1 million more barrels a day.
The truly promising area for oil in Alaska is the North Slope, a 750-mile coastal strip on which little or nothing grows. It is here that Prudhoe Bay oil was discovered on state lands in wells that had 13 billion barrels of reserves, equal to more than four years of domestic oil production. Now Prudhoe is emptying out, leaving only 3 billion barrels in reserve.
Is that the end of Alaskan oil potential?
Hardly. The reality is that Alaska has an enormous reservoir of oil, making it a potential Saudi Arabia at least in American production dimensions. Right now, in addition to the 20 percent of all oil produced in America, new reserves are regularly being found in Alaska. Phillips Petroleum has discovered one field of 429 million barrels on state lands in the North Slope and is now pumping 100,000 barrels a day.
The U. S. Geological Survey in 1989 estimated Alaska's oil potential at 13 billion barrels. But then in 1995, just six years later, they tripled that number to 33 billion potential barrels on both land and offshore. This May, that estimate will be revised upward again says the USGS. Even the present figure shows that Alaska has 40 percent of American oil reserves, enough to eventually make America almost self-sufficient.
The sin is that the present Alaskan oil is all extracted from state lands. The U.S. federal contribution? Zero. Not a teacup of oil has been produced on federal lands in Alaska. All the production from Prudhoe Bay and numerous other wells have been developed entirely on lands owned by the state, which pays every Alaskan citizen an oil bonus each year.
Why is Uncle Sam holding back this potential bonanza?
The unfortunate answer is that ludicrous politics in Washington hamstring the development of needed Alaskan oil. Many members of Congress are deathly afraid of the voting bloc power of the ecology movement. Ecologists have done a good job on clear air and water, but they have failed miserably in oil, where they are purposely holding back needed, clean production as exemplified by Prudhoe Bay.
"The ecology movement keeps talking about the pristine beauty of the North Slope and how oil development will ruin it," says Ken Boyd, former director for oil and gas in the Alaska state government. "The reality is that much of the North Slope, especially the oil-producing areas, is one of the ugliest places in the world; a flat miserable plain that is tundralike. And besides, the state has done an excellent job of handling the local ecology."
Unfortunately, the myopic federal government controls the two most promising North Slope areas, the ANWR or Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve. The ANWR has recently been named by President Bush as a prime area for oil development. It includes 1.2 million North Slope acres with an estimated 10.3 billion barrels of reserves, more than threefold America's total annual oil production.
But the president has faced strong opposition, most based on ignorance. The National Petroleum Reserve, an area the size of Indiana, with good frontage on the North Slope, is also off-limits unless the president and Congress decide to act.
Alaskan oil is the future of our national security, which is now heavily dependent on the good will of unstable Middle Eastern nations. Not only should the president and Congress act immediately to develop the oil hidden under the Alaskan tundra and offshore in the Arctic seas, but to appropriate money to build an Alaskan infrastructure necessary to reclaim the massive amount of oil.
We might also consider a simpler idea. Why not return to the state most of the land Washington grabbed in 1959?
Then we won't have to worry about national party politics when we seek to make America energy secure. Alaska is willing and able to take the oil out of the ground while protecting the environment. The state already has shown how it they can do so absent the yoke of Washington around its neck.

Martin Gross is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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