Oil from refuge would enhance security


by H. Sterling Burnett

THE SUN     

WASHINGTON -- Our nation's prosperity depends in large part on energy use.

Oil, the dominant source of energy for transportation, is more than a fuel source, however. Petroleum is a feedstock for plastics, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, lubricants and construction materials. This means that if we wish to continue our standard of living, we will need oil well into this century.

Over the past 23 years, Congress has wrestled with the question of whether to open less than one-half of 1 percent of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration and development. In the light of America 's energy needs, this inaction is both stunning and irresponsible.

What are the main arguments against opening up ANWR? Liberal environmental lobbyists, who oppose any production on public lands, claim that the oil in ANWR equals only a six-month supply.

This may be true, but it's also extremely misleading. ANWR would provide a six-month supply absent oil from any other source -- no imports, no domestic production, nothing else. No one is proposing this.

To put the matter in proper perspective, the Energy Information Agency estimates that ANWR contains between 6 billion and 16 billion barrels of oil. By comparison, the United States imports about 7 million barrels of oil per day. If only 6 billion barrels of oil were recovered in ANWR, in a time of emergency the United States could cut all imports of foreign oil for two years with little or no effect on the economy.

Put another way, ANWR's 6 billion barrels would be sufficient to replace oil from Iraq for 50 years or from Saudi Arabia for 30 years. Understood properly, this is no longer small potatoes.

Another charge is that ANWR was intended to be protected for all time from the hand of man. This claim is either based on ignorance of ANWR's history or is an outright lie.

The 1980 law that doubled the size of ANWR to 19 million acres expressly called for Congress to develop a process through which exploration and production could be conducted in the 1.5 million acres that make up the Coastal Plain.

Upon signing the bill, President Jimmy Carter hailed it as a great compromise that "strikes a balance between protecting areas of great beauty and value and allowing development of Alaska 's vital oil and gas and mineral and timber resources. A hundred percent of the offshore areas and 95 percent of the potentially productive oil and mineral areas will be available for exploration or for drilling."

The law called for an environmental impact statement for exploration in the Coastal Plain. That study was completed in 1987 with the recommendation that the Coastal Plain be opened to petroleum operations. That was 16 years ago.

Contrary to environmentalists' claims, oil production and environmental quality are not incompatible. Caribou herds have expanded in and around Prudhoe Bay , and other wildlife have flourished as well, apparently unaffected by the relatively primitive oil and gas development in the area.

Advances in technology mean ANWR will fare even better. As President Bill Clinton's Department of Energy stated: "Today's operators institute protective measures appropriate to sensitive environments. Ice-based roads, bridges, drilling pads and airstrips have become the standard for North Slope exploration projects. Ice-based fabrication is cheaper than gravel, it leaves virtually no footprint on the tundra; ice structures simply thaw and melt in the spring."

America will never have complete energy independence, nor should we attempt it. Yet Congress should remove the political obstacles to domestic production -- particularly in ANWR -- so that in times of crisis, America 's prosperity is not held hostage to hostile foreign powers.

H. Sterling Burnett is a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.

Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun