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Jewish World Review July 17, 2001 / 26 Tamuz, 5761

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow
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Consumer Reports

Do as I say, not as I do -- AMERICANS claim to be upset about high energy prices, but you wouldn't know after watching the House vote to ban drilling off the Gulf of Mexico and in the Great Lakes. The Senate seems equally opposed to oil exploration in the Alaska Natural Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), even though environmental groups permit energy production on their own lands.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that ANWR likely holds about 20.7 billion and conceivably as much as 31.5 billion barrels of oil, as well as four trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Production would help substitute for the diminishing flow from Alaska's Prudhoe Bay, now half its peak in 1982.

Cam Toohey, former executive director of Arctic Power, figures that opening up ANWR would generate between 250,000 and 735,000 jobs. The estimated economic benefits run up to $100 billion, comparable to the economic activity resulting from the Prudhoe Bay oil field and Trans-Alaska pipeline.

Environmentalists naturally discount potential production and predict ecological doom. Claims the Sierra Club: "Drilling in the refuge will decimate one of our nation's most important wilderness areas and threaten habitat used by hundreds of animals." The National Audubon Society warns that development "will destroy the integrity" of the refuge.

Most hysterical is President John Adams of the Natural Resources Defense Council: "if President Bush and the oil industry have their way, this extraordinary wildlife nursery may soon be turned into a vast, polluted oil field. The life-giving tundra will be crisscrossed by roads and pipelines, marred by refineries and sewage plants, and poisoned by oil spills."

In fact, the arguments on both sides are overblown. Although ANWR's oil would be useful, it would neither destroy OPEC nor eliminate America's reliance on imports.

At the same time, the proposed drilling would directly affect only about 15,500 of 19.6 million acres, or one one-hundredth of a percent of the refuge. Just 1,000 of those acres would actually host production facilities, leaving plenty of room for animals. So much for turning ANWR into "a vast, polluted oil field."

The fundamental problem with ANWR is that it is government-controlled. Without a real owner, disputes over use become winner-take-all ideological fights.

In contrast, consider the management of private land, owned by environmental groups.

For instance, the Nature Conservancy of Texas runs a small reserve that hosts the Attwater prairie chicken, an endangered species. The land also contains oil and natural gas.

What does the Nature Conservancy do? Develop its resources and use the resulting income to acquire more wildlife habitat.

Then there is the 26,000-acre Paul J. Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary run by the Audubon Society in Louisiana. The reserve is home to a variety of forms of wildlife - as well as oil and natural gas.

Although the Audubon Society likes animals, it also needs money. So it allowed construction of 37 wells in the sanctuary starting in the 1940s.

Such behavior, though obviously hypocritical given Audubon's stance on ANWR, was actually consistent with the organization's environmental agenda. For Audubon set limits on development consistent with its mission: drilling was carefully controlled, workers went home when the birds arrived, biologists monitored ecological impacts.

At the same time the group earned cash to invest in protecting environmental amenities. In short, Audubon balanced competing interests.

The organization closed the wells in 1999, and now says that it regrets having allowed drilling.

But one suspects that Audubon's concerns were more political than ecological. It was always embarrassing for the organization to oppose development of public land while opening its own property.

Opposition to exploration in ANWR is particularly hard to justify. The sanctuary is vast, barren tundra, which sustains little wildlife during the harsh winter.

Moreover, development would leave virtually no environmental imprint: roads can be constructed from frozen ocean water, for instance. Advances in technology now allow widespread drilling from minimal platforms.

In fact, drilling is allowed on 29 of the Fish and Wildlife Service's 530 refuges. For decades, writes Douglas Jehl of the New York Times: "wildlife has shared its watery quarters with oil and gas wells, pipelines and pumping stations built by energy companies, which have also dredged countless canals."

Although some problems are inevitable, the animals have flourished. Indeed, caribou herds expanded in Alaska's North Slope after drilling commenced. Moreover, the extra federal revenues have been used for environmental purposes, including recovering wetlands.

Only second-best solutions are possible as long as ANWR remains federal property. It would be best to place the refuge in private hands, even those of environmentalists.

Until then, Uncle Sam should emulate the behavior of the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy. It should balance ecology with development and allow carefully controlled drilling.

JWR contributor Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. Comment by clicking here.


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