Monday, December 19, 2005

Drilling for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) makes so much sense, it’s no wonder opponents must twist the facts to make it controversial. Yesterday, at last, common sense prevailed when the House passed by 308-106 a bill to authorize development of ANWR.

We’re talking about 10 billion barrels of domestic oil in an area where there has been a proven track record for environmentally responsible drilling. Yet a host of tall tales from environmental activists and like-minded journalists has made it a tough fight in Washington.

The current action in Congress involves adding ANWR drilling to the defense appropriations bill. Given continued high oil prices and political turmoil in many oil-producing nations, now seems to offer a good chance to get ANWR done. But this will finally occur only if the ANWR myths are exposed. Here are several:

• ANWR drilling would harm the environment. Some perspective is helpful to understand the ecological insignificance of ANWR drilling. ANWR comprises 19 million acres in Northeast Alaska, 17.5 million of which are totally off-limits to drilling or any other kind of economic activity. This is why the news footage showing beautiful snowcapped mountains is misleading, because the drilling would not be allowed anywhere near those areas. Only the flat and featureless coastal plain would be affected, and even there only a small portion of its 1.5 million acres. The current version of the bill limits the surface disturbance to 2,000 acres, a small piece of a big coastal plain in a very big wildlife refuge in the biggest state in the Union.

• Oil wells would despoil one of the few remaining pristine places. Again, the vast majority of ANWR will be completely unaffected by drilling. It would occur only on a small part of the coastal plain where there already is some human habitation. There are plenty of truly pristine places in Alaska worth preserving, but ANWR’s coastal plain isn’t one of them. As it is, Alaska has 141 million acres of protected lands, an area equal to the size of California and New York combined.

• Drilling is incompatible with National Wildlife Refuges. Drilling critics have tried to confuse wildlife refuges with national parks, wilderness areas and other more highly protected categories of federal lands. But national wildlife refuges typically allow limited mining, logging, drilling, ranching or other activities. Indeed, the statute creating ANWR contemplated future oil production on the coastal plain, subject to congressional approval. It is worth noting that another wildlife refuge in Alaska, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, has had drilling onsite for decades. The oil production there rarely makes the news because it has not caused any problems, even though Kenai has far more wildlife than ANWR.

• Oil development harms local wildlife. An extensive track record proves otherwise. In addition to Kenai, Alaska has oil drilling in the Prudhoe Bay field, only 55 miles west of ANWR. Prudhoe Bay has produced more than 10 billion barrels of oil since the 1970s, which has been transported through the Alaska pipeline to the domestic market in the Lower 48 states. Decades of studies show this oil production has affected the environment negligibly. Environmental opponents of drilling cannot cite a single species driven toward extinction or even a decline in numbers attributable to Prudhoe Bay. That drilling also was done with decades-old technology and methods far less environmentally sensitive than ANWR would require.

• Caribou herds will be devastated. Environmentalists have been particularly excessive in predicting dire harm to the herd of caribou that migrate through ANWR. But the caribou migrating through Prudhoe Bay have increased from 3,000 to 23,000 since drilling began in 1977.

• Alaskans oppose ANWR drilling. In fact, polls regularly show 75 percent or more of Alaskans support drilling. This includes the native Alaskans who live near the potential drilling site. But the few who oppose drilling get most of the media attention. Alaskans know firsthand that resource extraction can co-exist with environmental protection. They also know how silly are the environmental gloom-and-doom predictions: They have heard such nonsense for decades.

If the average American, and his or her representative in Congress, knew the facts as well as the average Alaskan, ANWR drilling wouldn’t be controversial. Fortunately, it’s not too late for the Senate to join the House’s common-sense step and boost domestic oil supplies by allowing ANWR drilling.

Ben Lieberman is a senior policy analyst in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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