- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 10, 2005

Sometimes we have to hand it to our greener friends, especially those in the Green Party. To express their horror about the recent Senate vote to open a teeny section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling, they raise the global warming specter.

Specifically, the March 22 press release says, “Green Party members noted that new drilling not only threatened local lands and wildlife in Alaska, but also risked accelerating the advance of catastrophic global warming.”

Even if we grant all the globe’s average annual warming of 0.017 degree Centigrade in the last 10 years was due to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide — and that’s quite a concession — the numbers on ANWR are a drop in the barrel.

According to the Energy Information Administration, in that decade petroleum accounted for about 42 percent of the total human contribution of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. That would mean a total petroleum-related warming of about 0.007 degree yearly.

The global annual petroleum consumption in this period averaged 26.6 billion barrels. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, oil in this little corner of ANWR totals 10.3 billion barrels, enough to supply the world less than five months, or slightly under 40 percent of the annual total.

Now burn all 10.3 billion barrels. Forty percent of .007 degree C per year gives a total warming contribution of right around .003 degree C, that’s three thousandths — not three or even three-tenths. Again, that’s the total warming when all the ANWR oil is combusted. These numbers aren’t hard to come by. So what’s the real skinny on ANWR? Why are so many lines being drawn in the tundra over a field so small?

As the world’s thirst for oil accelerates, it becomes increasingly profitable to drill in some pretty hostile places. We drill in the Hibernia field, 200 miles out to sea from St. John’s, Newfoundland, where some of the world’s strongest cyclones regularly cause barometric blowouts. We drill in the North Sea, one of the windiest waters on Earth. And now in ANWR.

Drilling in Hibernia and the North Sea leave little ecological footprints. As currently planned, ANWR is likely to see similarly little impact.

ANWR will be drilled only in winter, when things are so frozen heavy equipment can ride atop the snow-covered tundra. At so far north, this means drilling in the continuous dark of the polar night. ANWR is a model project for minimum-impact oil extraction in a remarkably hostile environment.

Oil at ANWR and at neighboring Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, isn’t an accident. The geology of much of Alaska’s North Slope — 600 miles running from west of Point Barrow to the Canadian border — is pretty similar. As a result, there may be plenty more where that oil came from.

For example, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management recently proposed opening for oil leases a nearly 630,000-acre tract at Teshekpuk Lake, west of the current ANWR site. Demonstration of clean drilling at ANWR will clearly reduce political issues over drilling there. And if there’s more oil to the west (I am told there is), this forbidden land becomes a much more significant oil source than ANWR or Prudhoe Bay.

If oil prices rise enough, drilling may extend into even more hostile environments or places where extraction is more difficult. The Alberta Tar Sands, for instance, require a lot of energy to purify. If supplies really get tight, who knows where the wildcatters will go? Antarctica could be loaded with oil.

Much of that exploration will obviously not occur for some time, if ever. By treaty, Antarctica cannot be exploited for commercial gain. But when oil supplies tighten, history teaches us gentlemen’s agreements don’t last.

ANWR is a symbol. Contrary to what has been claimed, it has nothing directly to do with global warming and everything to do with a possible massive expansion of drilling into ever more hostile environments.

Patrick J. Michaels is Cato Institute fellow for senior environmental studies and author of “Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians and the Media.”

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