A Sneaky Bid for Arctic Oil

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Drill for oil in Yosemite Valley? A geothermal steam plant near Old Faithful? A hydroelectric dam on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon? Even the Bush administration would not go that far in search of energy sources because law bans such exploitation in the national parks. But its zeal for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska is nearly as dumb. The refuge should have been made a national park in 1980, when Congress considered the designation. But for the oil industry, it would have been.

For the fifth consecutive year, the administration is seeking congressional approval to industrialize parts of the Alaskan North Slope -- for only enough oil to meet the nation’s needs for, at most, six months. Thwarted in the past in up-or-down votes in the Senate, the administration now is attempting to win approval by slipping a rider into the budget bill. The thinking is that no one would risk the wrath of voters by trying to kill the budget just because it contained the refuge rider. Think again. Polls show that most Americans oppose drilling and production in the refuge and disruption of its amazing variety of birds, fish and other animal life.

Bush aides and their industry friends are pulling out all the old tricks, promising that drilling will be done from ice pads and only over 2,000 acres of the refuge, with no widespread wreckage of the wilderness.


Don’t believe it. If oil is found, it can be gotten out only through pumping stations and pipelines to Prudhoe Bay. These facilities have to be maintained year-round, meaning access roads and places for workers to live. In any case, it would take as long as 10 years for the oil to reach the market.

The administration has already thrown open millions of acres of the American West to energy exploitation and more millions in the former national petroleum reserve west of the Arctic plain and Prudhoe Bay. Some of the openings make sense, others don’t. The latest ruckus is over allowing oil and gas wells on desert grassland in New Mexico, putting water supplies at risk. State officials solidly opposed the drilling but got a brushoff at the Interior Department.

If the administration was serious about a comprehensive energy policy, it would at least raise gasoline mileage standards on cars, light trucks and sport utility vehicles, helping to clean up the air in the process.

Even industry ardor for drilling in the Arctic refuge seems to have waned in the face of popular opposition. Why then bull ahead on this issue?