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Of Odes and Oil

April 10 2002

There’s something about drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) that inclines political souls to poetry. Former President Jimmy Carter rhapsodizes about not “pollut[ing] the wild music of the Arctic.” Sen. Patrick Leahy lauds, “This vast, remote refuge…called the ‘American Serengeti’,” and Sen. John Kerry denounces “lust for our last acres of pristine wilderness.” Cue “Born Free.”

And cut. The untamed glory of the politicos’ fantasy is actually a featureless plain with nine months of uninterrupted winter and 56 days of total darkness. Its hostile conditions play year-round host to just five species of birds, a few polar bears hearty enough to den on the Beaufort Sea pack ice, and a handful of lemmings. Most of it is inaccessible to the L.L. Bean weekenders who dream of parking their SUVs at manicured campsites and frolicking with the caribou.

All told, ANWR covers 19 million acres - 8 million classified as formal wilderness and 9.5 million designated wildlife refuge. Those 17.5 million protected acres - an expanse the size of South Carolina -- can never be developed. But beneath the frozen surface of the remaining 1.5 million acres, tapping just 2,000 could supply 1.9 million of the 19 million barrels of oil the U.S. consumes each day. If only we could reach it.

Over the last eight years, America’s appetite for oil has risen 14%. We’ve answered by increasing imports by more than a third. Some 57% of our annual supply now comes from foreign sources, and with Saddam Hussein announcing this week that he’s tying oil availability to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, we have an object lesson in the perils of dependence. What we didn’t learn from the 1973 Arab embargo, 1979 Iranian revolution, and 1990 invasion of Kuwait we have another chance to get right. But the odds of a course correction look increasingly bleak.

In 1995, Congress authorized ANWR exploration, but then President Clinton vetoed the package. Last fall, with the Bush Administration’s backing, the House again approved a provision to open a fraction of the refuge, and Senate passage should have been a formality. Turmoil in the Middle East drives home the necessity of domestic reserves, and the opposition’s best arguments have been debunked.

Doomsday for the caribou? Fact: Since drilling began at Prudhoe Bay over 20 years ago, the Arctic caribou herd has grown from 3,000 to 27,500.

Damage to the ecosystem? Fact: There’s a reason environmentalists pack their brochures with pictures from the end of the ANWR that will never be drilled.

Disregard for local interests? Fact: Inupiat Eskimos, the only tribe indigenous to the Arctic Coastal Plain, are well aware of the economic impact of development on the North Slope and are desperate for more of the same.

Big Oil profiteers? Fact: Better to enrich a domestic company or a Persian Gulf despot?

From every arguable angle, opening a sliver of the ANWR looks like a no-brainer. But the Senate is now poised to shelve the plan without so much as a vote. Six Republicans have gone on record opposing it, and only four Democrats are prepared to counterbalance. Figure in a filibuster, and it’s ballgame.

But shouldn’t a popular president with a near-dominant party be able to pass a self-evident proposition? On most anything else. There’s a reason poetry plays in this case. Forsaken by science and common sense, the environmental movement can’t put a premium on logic. So in a strategic calculation, they rely instead on dreamy word-pictures and fretful hand-wringing. And it’s worked. Our “If it feels good…” public flew straight for the web -- along with just enough Senators to ensure that we’ll be banking on Saddam’s goodwill for many years to come.

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