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Jewish World Review Sept. 28, 2000 / 28 Elul, 5760

John H. Fund

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Consumer Reports

Locking up domestic oil? -- THE DIFFERENCES between Al Gore and George W. Bush on energy are stark. As gas prices rise and the U.S. becomes more dependent on foreign oil, the vice president opposes any oil exploration or drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Governor Bush supports prudent development. The voters are supposed to decide who's right this November. That is unless President Clinton overturns the policy card table by unilaterally declaring ANWR a national monument.

This summer, the trade publication Oil Daily reported the White House "has prepared the paperwork" for an ANWR monument "and it is just a matter of timing." Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said he is unaware of any such plans and that he "wouldn't support" them. But, as President Clinton proved recently when he designated four new national monuments, such decisions aren't made at Interior. They're crafted by a few White House political advisers with almost no consultation or warning.

Americans who aren't among the 200 or so naturalists or outdoorsmen who visit ANWR in any given year should know it is no Yellowstone. A treeless, marshy wilderness in summer it becomes a frozen desert the rest of the year. The only part of ANWR that's part of possible exploration plans is the narrow 20-by-100 mile coastal plain that makes up only 8% of the wildlife refuge. The U.S. Geological Survery estimates oil reserves in that strip could be enough to supply U.S. needs for up to 30 months.

Even though ANWR isn't home to any threatened or endangered species, environmental fundamentalists say it is sacrosanct. "There can be no compromise," says Allen Smith of the Wilderness Society. "The refuge must not be violated, or it will be destroyed." They claim a 152,000-member caribou herd would abandon ANWR as its traditional place to give birth to calves. Jimmy Carter met this month with President Clinton in the Oval Office to urge him to lock up ANWR.

This ignores the fact that the caribou herd at next-door Prudhoe Bay has increased at least threefold since the oil pipeline reached it 22 years ago. Not a single caribou alive today was there before the oil wells. New underground technology means that any ANWR development would disturb an area smaller than Dulles Airport near Washington.

Developing oil resources in a wildlife refuge is nothing new. Since the early 1950s, the Audubon Society's own Rainey Preserve in Louisiana has successfully supported drilling by several oil companies on only 26,000 acres. Having observed Prudhoe Bay's environmental success, the local Inupiat Eskimos support development of ANWR.

But for the Clinton administration the ANWR isn't about the merits, it's about politics.

It's more likely than not there will be a lockup of ANWR either just before or just after the November elections, depending on whether the decision is viewed as helping or hurting Al Gore's chances. The administration's track record leads one to conclude its protestations to the contrary fall under the heading: "Don't Trust, You Can't Verify." Vice President Gore should be pressed during the campaign on whether or not he supports monument designation for America's largest unexplored oil fields when the economic and environmental justifications are so weak.

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©2000, John H. Fund