Saturday, April 2, 2005

“This battle is far from over,” environmentalists vowed, after the Senate voted to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling. Indeed, the 51-49 margin underscores the passion of drilling opponents, the misinformation that still surrounds this issue, and a monumental double standard for environmental protection.

Many votes against drilling came from California and Northeastern senators who consistently rail against high energy prices, unemployment and balance of trade deficits — while opposing petroleum exploration in Alaska, the Outer Continental Shelf, Western states and any other areas where it might actually be found. Rarely if ever, do they recognize these bans send American jobs and dollars overseas, reduce U.S. royalty and tax revenues, and harm the environment.

Government geologists say ANWR could hold up to 16 billion barrels of recoverable oil. That’s 30 years’ of imports from Saudi Arabia. Turned into gasoline, it would power California’s vehicle fleet for 50 years, and hybrid and fuel cell cars would stretch the oil even further. ANWR’s natural gas could fuel California’s electrical generating plants for years.

At $50 a barrel, ANWR could avoid importation of $800 billion worth of foreign oil, create up to 700,000 American jobs and generate hundreds of billions in royalties and taxes.

No matter, say environmentalists. Drilling would “irreparably destroy” the refuge. Nonsense.

ANWR is as large as South Carolina: 19 million acres. Of this, only 2,000 acres along the “coastal plain” would actually be disturbed by drilling and development. That’s 0.01 percent — one-twentieth of the District of Columbia — 20 of the buildings Boeing uses to manufacture its 747 jets.

The potentially oil-rich area is a flat, treeless stretch of tundra, 3,500 miles from D.C. and 50 miles from the beautiful mountains seen in all the misleading anti-drilling photos. During eight months of winter, when drilling would take place, virtually no wildlife are present. No wonder. Winter temperatures drop as low as minus 40 F. 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. Come spring, they would all melt, leaving only puddles and little holes. The caribou would return — just as they have for years at the nearby Prudhoe Bay and Alpine oil fields — and do just what they always have: eat, hang out and make babies. In fact, Prudhoe’s caribou herd has increased from 6,000 head in 1978 to 27,000 today. Arctic fox, geese, shore birds and other wildlife would also return, along with the infamous flies and mosquitoes.

But the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, Alaska Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, and Natural Resources Defense Council still oppose ANWR development — even as they promote wind energy as an alternative. Electricity from wind is hardly a substitute for petroleum — especially for cars, trains, boats and planes. And swapping reliable, revenue-generating petroleum for intermittent, tax-subsidized wind power is a poor tradeoff. On ecological grounds, wind power fails even more miserably.

A single 555-megawatt gas-fired power plant on 15 acres generates more electricity each year than all 13,000 of California’s wind turbines — which dominate 106,000 acres of once-scenic hill country. They kill some 10,000 eagles, hawks, other birds and bats every year.

In Wisconsin, anti-oil groups support building 133 gigantic Cuisinarts on 32,000 acres (16 times the ANWR operations area) near Horicon Marsh. This magnificent wetland is home to millions of geese, ducks and other migratory birds, and just miles from an abandoned mine that houses 140,000 bats. At 390 feet high, the turbines would tower over the Statue of Liberty (305 feet), U.S. Capitol Building (287 feet) and Arctic oil production facilities (50 feet).

All these Horicon turbines would produce about as much power as Fairfax County, Va., gets from one facility that burns garbage to generate electricity. But they would likely crank out an amazing amount of goose liver pate.

In Maryland’s mountains, along West Virginia’s Backbone Mountain, off the Cape Cod coast, amidst the tall grass prairie country of Kansas and elsewhere, the tradeoff is the same: Thousands of flying mammals and tens of thousands of acres sacrificed to wind power, to “save” ANWR.

Better yet, America could generate nearly 20 percent of its electricity from the wind, says the American Wind Energy Association, if it devoted just 1 percent of its land mass to these turbines. What’s 1 percent of the USA, you ask. It’s the state of Virginia: 23 million acres.

This ecological double standard is absurd. So is the Gwich’in Indians’ claim that drilling would “threaten their traditional lifestyle.” Inuit Eskimos who live in ANWR support drilling by an 8:1 margin. They’re tired of poverty and using 5-gallon pails for toilets — after having given up their land claims for oil rights that Congress has repeatedly denied them.

The Indians live 150-250 miles away — and their reservations about drilling aren’t exactly carved in stone. Back in the 1980s, the Alaska Gwich’ins leased 1.8 million acres of their tribal lands for oil development. That’s more land than would be explored in ANWR. (No oil was found.)

A couple years ago, Canada’s Gwich’ins announced plans to drill in their 1.4-million-acre land claims area. The proposed drill sites (and a potential pipeline route) are just east of a major migratory path, where caribou often birth their calves, before they arrive in ANWR.

Many therefore suspect the Gwich’ins role as anti-oil poster children has much to do with receiving at least $630,000 from the Wilderness Society and a herd of liberal foundations. In exchange, they’ve placed full-page ads in major newspapers, appeared in TV spots and testified on Capitol Hill against ANWR exploration — while pursuing their own drilling programs.

Alternative energy technologies are certainly coming. Just ponder how we traveled, heated our homes, communicated and manufactured things 100 years ago versus today. But the change won’t happen overnight. Nor will it come via government mandates, or by throwing an anti-oil monkey wrench into our economy.

It shouldn’t come at the expense of habitats, scenery and wildlife, either. Anyone who cares about these things should support automotive research — and ANWR oil development.

Paul Driessen is senior policy adviser for the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise and author of “Eco-Imperialism: Green power — Black death.”

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