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'ANWR Drilling Rebuttal' - A Commentary

By Michael Boydston, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX – Sterling Burnett argues that opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil production is essential to preserving our way of life, and that we can drill there without harming the environment. He's wrong on both counts.

Mr. Burnett says that petroleum from the Refuge can keep us from being "held hostage by foreign powers" who might cut off our supplies. But it's not as if the oil from the Arctic would be set aside as an emergency reserve. To the contrary, we would begin using it up, as soon as possible. It's true that weather, pipeline capacity, and other factors would limit the rate of this consumption, but that just means that oil from the Refuge cannot substitute for any significant amount of our oil imports. In fact, the Congressional Research Service estimates that Refuge oil production would peak at 750,000 barrels a day, which is less than eight percent of the amount we import. And in any case, relying on that oil would pose immense security problems: every barrel would pass through the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which runs through some of the most remote terrain on Earth.

We could better protect ourselves by curtailing our gluttony. Americans consume about twice as much oil per capita as western Europeans. We waste a lot: the same petroleum we rely on to fuel ambulances and fertilize wheat, we also use to fuel Hummers and manufacture giant inflatable advertising gorillas. By living wisely - for instance, by making reasonable improvements in auto fuel economy - we can do far more to reduce our dependence on foreign oil than drilling in the Refuge would.

Now you might think that conservation is fine, but drilling can't hurt much, since according to its advocates "only 2,000 acres" of the Refuge would be affected. But this supposed limitation only measures the ground surface covered by support and production structures. The development would not be confined to a compact 2,000-acre footprint, but instead would spread over an industrial web of roads, drill pads, pipelines, airstrips, and so on. And spills would happen: existing operations elsewhere in Alaska average one every 18 hours.

This development would scar an area of enormous biological value - a huge intact ecosystem with all parts present and functioning, from wolf to walrus. Take caribou. The Refuge's coastal plain is a calving ground for the huge herd that's the cornerstone of the indigenous Gwich'in's way of life. Scientists think that oil development could cause a 40% decline in that herd's birthrate. And drilling would forever alter the character of the Refuge. It's one of the largest undeveloped areas in the country - no roads, no lodges, no landfills, no oil rigs. Its integrity is important even to people who may never venture there.

So it's no surprise that despite the pro-drilling drumbeat from the Bush Administration, most Americans oppose letting the oil industry into the Refuge. Perhaps they agree with Thoreau that "in wildness is the preservation of the world." Or, maybe they recognize that drilling proponents are dodging the question, what happens after we use up all the oil in the Arctic Refuge? The only long-term solution is to work toward a sustainable economy. We can start today, and we don't need to despoil irreplaceable landscapes to do so.


Michael Boydston is a lawyer from Dallas.