Hands off ANWR

BILL STALL is a contributing editor to Opinion.

WHAT’S MORE cynical than offering Americans $100 each to soothe the pain of high gasoline prices? The proposal by some in Congress to open the nation’s last, best wild place to exploring and drilling for oil. Most of us can see the $100 offer for what it is: pure political pandering. And we should be equally skeptical of the latest rush to industrialize the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

President Bush and some members of Congress will do just about anything to drill in the Arctic plain, an area often described as “America’s Serengeti” for its rich variety of wildlife. In December, we had to drill because of the threat of conflict with Iran. Now it’s Iran plus gasoline prices. Forget that it might take as long as 17 years, according to drilling supporters, before any oil found in the refuge reaches market.

It seemed that ANWR drilling had been put to rest at the end of last year, when the Senate rejected a back-door attempt to approve it by making it an amendment to a defense spending bill (this after the House stripped it from a budget bill). But ANWR keeps coming back. Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) was one proponent last week, huffing and puffing in the New York Times: “With all due respect, I cannot understand what coherent political philosophy cuts its own country off from oil.”

Certainly the nation needs to develop the oil resources it has, as the energy sector converts to alternative sources of fuel, including ethanol, fuel cells and oil sands, and conservation through better auto-mileage standards and production of better hybrid vehicles. The Bush administration is opening millions of acres of federal land to oil and gas exploration, including a vast area of Arctic Alaska, west of the existing oilfield at Prudhoe Bay, and some offshore areas.


And certainly no other single unexplored area contains ANWR’s potential oil reserves, estimated at from 4.8 billion to 29.4 billion barrels. Even so, it’s misleading for drilling advocates to indicate that the Arctic refuge is the key to our energy security. At best, it would produce only 1% to 2% of the nation’s oil consumption annually for the life of the field. Cumulatively, other sources offer much greater potential.

There’s an even more basic flaw in the case for drilling, however. The claim is made that the refuge’s coastal plain -- the area between the Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean -- can be explored, drilled and drained of oil without harming or compromising the pristine ecosystem of the region or the fish, polar bears, caribou, wolves and birds (160 species) it sustains.

That’s grossly misleading. The oil is scattered at 30 different sites across the 1.5-million-acre plain. Extracting it would require not just a limited number of drilling rigs -- as drilling proponents claim -- but service roads, or at best constant helicopter flights, and a network of small pipelines and pumping stations that would lead to one larger pipeline snaking across the Arctic plain to the terminus of the trans-Alaska pipeline at Prudhoe Bay. In other words, the industrialization of wilderness.

Although Talent doesn’t seem to know it, there is a coherent philosophy that objects to such a plan. It can be found in a deeply ingrained American belief that some sites must not be sacrificed to economic interests. Would we open Yellowstone to geothermal steam power plants? Or dam the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon for the hydroelectric power that could be produced? Although the plain is not a national park or formally declared wilderness, that’s only a technicality. It’s a critical part of the refuge, which, except for the plain, has already been granted wilderness protection.


Drilling proponents will argue, as they did in December, that ANWR and its coastal plain are remote, so remote that you and I probably won’t ever go there, and so remote that they are expendable. Yet “remote” is really what makes the plain indispensable.

In 1969, Garrett Hardin, a UC Santa Barbara professor, argued before a Sierra Club conference that the best places should be hard to get to. “The exquisite sight, sound and smell of wilderness is many times more powerful if it is earned through physical achievement,” he declared, noting that he would never see such places himself because he needed crutches or a wheelchair to get around.

The number of truly wild places is shrinking as population and development expand. I will never hike the Arctic plain, but I know that its continued existence -- unspoiled -- is worth a thousand times more than its destruction, no matter the price of oil.