Arctic Bait and Switch

By KEN WHITON, president of REP’s New Mexico Chapter

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: This op-ed was published in the Albuquerque Tribune on May 8, 2005.


Thomas Jefferson said,

“Information is the currency of democracy.”

In order for citizens to make informed decisions about public policy, our leaders have a responsibility to communicate clearly and completely on the important issues of the day, such as oil drilling in America’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Recent reports on House approval of an energy bill authorizing drilling are a case in point. Readers may have noticed that the bill would limit drilling to 2,000 acres, which on the surface sounds like a reasonable way to limit oil development impacts.

Columnist George Will wrote in Newsweek last year that a dime placed on the edge of a 4-foot by 6-foot dinner table, that would represent the relative portion of the refuge that would be opened to drilling.

I could use Will’s analogy to compare the size of a bullet through your heart with the size of your body and draw the mistaken conclusion that very little damage would result. Unfortunately for the refuge, the area proposed for drilling has been described (by the Republican Reagan administration, no less) as its “biological heart.”

The refuge contains the greatest wildlife diversity of any protected area in the circumpolar north – the chief reason why Republican President Dwight Eisenhower set aside the area in 1960 as a wildlife sanctuary.

Upon hearing that drilling for oil would be limited to only 2,000 acres, one cannot be faulted for assuming the 2,000 acres would be contiguous and concentrated in one location.

In fact, there is no requirement limiting the distribution of the acreage. The bill allows the 2,000 acres to sprawl like a giant spider web of well pads, roads, pipelines and other infrastructure across the entire 1.5 million acres where drilling would be allowed.

An Arctic refuge oil field would not be the tiny postage stamp proponents make it out to be. It would be a major industrial facility utterly incompatible with the refuge’s original purpose of wildlife conservation.

Proponents, who concede that oil production would compromise the refuge’s wilderness value, assert that America needs the oil. A question commonly debated, then, is how much oil does the refuge hold? But a more meaningful question is how much oil from the refuge could be profitably produced?

Oil is produced only when it is profitable to do so. The higher the price of oil, the more it could be produced profitably. The lower the price of oil, the less it could be produced profitably.

Federal geologists do not have a firm fix on how much oil beneath the refuge would be profitable to produce. Instead, like weather forecasters, they offer a range of probabilities. At today’s price of $29 per barrel, for example, there is a 95 percent chance that approximately 3 billion barrels could be produced profitably, equivalent to about six months of total domestic consumption.

A greater quantity of profitable oil might be available at today’s price, but the chances are smaller. Geologists give only 5 percent odds that the total quantity of profitable oil at the $29 per barrel price would be 10 billion barrels.

As prices fall, so do the quantities that are profitable to produce. At a price of $13 per barrel, production would be a commercial non-starter – no matter how much oil the refuge may hold.

Arctic refuge production would do little to curb U.S. appetite for foreign oil. According to a U.S. Department of Energy estimate, refuge oil would reduce petroleum imports only 2 percent, from 62 per cent to 60 percent, by 2020.

Until we take charge of our destiny, using fuel more efficiently and developing new sources of energy, our dependence on oil will mean dependence on foreign oil.

Improving vehicle efficiency by 2 to 3 miles per gallon would save as much oil as we could expect to get from the Arctic refuge. The biggest oil field in America is between the ears of Detroit’s automotive engineers.

Would drilling be done responsibly? The oil industry’s track record offers little reason for optimism. The nearby Prudhoe Bay facility averages 400 spills a year, emits twice the nitrogen oxide air pollution as Washington, D.C., and is responsible for 55 contaminated waste sites.

As a Republican who believes Americans should be taking responsibility for our actions, I don’t believe the industry has done enough to clean up after itself.

I visited the coastal plain of the Arctic refuge recently at my own expense. I saw firsthand that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a vast, wonderful, irreplaceable wilderness. I am grateful that President Eisenhower had the vision to preserve this unique area for future generations of Americans to enjoy.

Our country needs a truly conservative energy plan, not a policy that perpetuates oil consumption and continued dependence on foreign energy. We must end our dependence on foreign oil but not by destroying pristine wilderness.

Instead, we must make use of efficiency technologies and clean, alternative energy sources. A truly conservative energy policy will create more jobs, save consumers money, reduce air pollution and achieve energy security for America.

A century ago, Theodore Roosevelt, easily our greatest conservation president and initially a Republican, created America’s first wildlife refuge.

How ironic that today’s Republican leadership is set on putting at risk the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of America’s most spectacular places, for a petty, short-term oil gain.

Roosevelt told us that efficiency in the use of resources is a moral and patriotic obligation.

Once again — in the case of the Arctic Refuge — the wisdom of this great American president provides practical and smart guidance for how we should live today.

We can, and should, preserve and protect this cherished resource.