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Jewish World Review Jan. 10, 2002 / 26 Teves, 5762

John H. Fund

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Oil of Vitriol -- TOM DASCHLE has decided that even though the nation is at war, it can wait for an energy policy. The majority leader told the Senate before it left town last month that an energy bill is "so multifaceted and jurisdictional" that he can't possibly hold a vote on it until late this month or perhaps even next month. Mr. Daschle doesn't want a vote on the Bush administration's package because he knows it will pass unless a politically risky filibuster stops it from getting a floor vote. Far from practicing bipartisanship, Mr. Daschle is stalling at a time when the nation needs action.

Environmentalists are leery of the overall Bush energy bill, but they especially loathe its plan to drill for oil and gas in a small sliver of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Their fight to lock up ANWR forever has taken on the trappings of a holy war, though the environmental stakes are quite low. Under a bill already passed by the House, development of ANWR would be limited to a mere 2,000 acres--0.01% of its total area. Energy development at Prudhoe Bay has been an unqualified environmental success, with the local caribou herd quadrupling to 23,000 animals. In 29 other wildlife refuges, including Louisiana's Rainey Sanctuary, oil and gas production is currently being done in harmony with all manner of wildlife.

Most Alaskans don't understand what the fuss is about. The Alaska Federation of Natives supports drilling; its members say they have experience balancing humans with nature. Environmentalists in the lower 48 states won't admit that ANWR is just a frozen desert, windswept and bleak even in the summer. But the battle to save "pristine" ANWR from any outside influence makes great copy for environmental fund-raising pitches. Tony Knowles, Alaska's Democratic governor, says opposing ANWR gives senators "an easy way to earn their environmental merit badges in somebody else's backyard."

Such political considerations should pale before a stark fact during a time when the U.S. is fighting Arab terrorists. The U.S. now gets 58% of its oil from foreign sources, up from 45% a decade ago. U.S. oil production is on a downward slope, making us more dependent on oil from arid deserts in the uncertain Middle East. In September, the U.S. imported a record 1.2 million barrels of oil a day from Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the highest level since before the Gulf War. Every day, the U.S. transfers $25 million ($8.8 billion a year) into the coffers of a dictator we may attack soon. This country can't afford the luxury of not developing domestic energy sources, and preliminary exploration has found there is a good chance ANWR could rival the Prudhoe Bay field, which has provided 25% of the domestic U.S. oil supply for nearly two decades.

Despite all this, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the New Mexico Democrat who chairs the Senate Energy Committee, says ANWR is "a distraction from more important issues." Like what?

Mr. Daschle is refusing to allow an up-or-down vote on the Bush energy plan because he knows it would pass as easily as it did in the House, where 32 Democrats voted for both it and ANWR exploration. If brought to the floor, the only way anti-ANWR forces can prevail is with a lengthy filibuster that would expose the American people to the facts. So instead Mr. Daschle wants to stall the bill as long as he can, perhaps bringing it up on short notice just before a holiday weekend.

It's time serious senators tried to attach the energy package to other legislation. One idea would be the farm bill Mr. Daschle has decided is so important to his South Dakota constituents that he rushed it to the floor in December. The bloated bill failed to withstand the scrutiny of a filibuster, but Mr. Daschle promises to call it up again this month.

It's also time for a good, old-fashioned Senate filibuster on energy. President Bush could make his energy plan the focus of a major speech, and then the American people could decide which side of the debate supports energy development with responsible environmental safeguards and which prefers to appease the environmental left.

Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.


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©2001, John H. Fund