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Drilling in ANWR
IT DIDN’T SEEM possible that the argument over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could become any shriller. But with yesterday’s announcement by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) that he had persuaded House and Senate conferees to attach a pro-drilling amendment to the defense appropriations bill—a piece of legislation that must pass if U.S. troops in Iraq are to be paid, fed and armed—it certainly did. Despite trying to attach drilling amendments to multiple bills, including several in this Congress, Mr. Stevens has for years failed to obtain congressional approval. Only by making inappropriate use of his position as chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee and by shamefully threatening to hold up a bill that no one in Congress wants to see fail might he finally see the measure pass.
Without question, Mr. Stevens’s pigheaded attachment to this project has helped give it a national importance it doesn’t deserve, either for energy policy or for the environment. The controversy concerns not the entire 19 million-acre refuge but a 1.5 million-acre strip along the coast that was left in legal limbo when Congress set up the refuge in 1980. No one has ever claimed that the reserves beneath this strip compare to the much larger reserves in Prudhoe Bay next door. The best estimates are that the oil beneath the coastal plain could, in a decade or so, supply the United States with a tiny percentage of its oil needs. It isn’t the panacea that some advocates claim.
Nor is this the gravest environmental issue facing the country, as the debate might lead you to believe. Global warming is potentially more cataclysmic, the erosion of wetlands more urgent, air pollution more critical to human health. But the land in question does have ecological significance, to birds and polar bears as well as the more frequently mentioned caribou. Environmentalists are also right to be offended by the “drill at all costs” mentality of a majority party and an administration that refuse to take any other meaningful measures to curb the nation’s oil consumption. Drilling in ANWR isn’t going to save the country from dependence on Saudi Arabia. Given that reality, it makes no sense to spoil a pristine, environmentally valuable place.