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Jewish World Review April 26, 2001 / 5 Iyar, 5761

Mort Zuckerman

Mort Zuckerman
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The caribou conundrum -- PRETTY SOON now, we're going to be hearing an awful lot about ambling caribou and Arab sheiks. They'll be the totems of opposing positions as the energy issue moves once more onto the nation's front burner. Those who oppose President Bush's wish to consider drilling on Alaska's coastal plain will cite the threat to wildlife and the area's incomparable beauty. The drilling lobby will stress America's overdependence on foreign oil, whose price is determined by a bunch of sheiks and semi-Marxist Latin dictators. Together, the oil cartel pockets at least half the $150 billion plus Americans shell out each year on energy. But before the rhetoric gets hot enough to melt the glaciers, perhaps it's time to take a calm look at a few facts.

In the first place, the coastal plain isn't the Alaska of the famous postcard vistas. The 1.5 million-acre tract accounts for just 8 percent of the 19 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And rather than the calendar art of the last frontier, the land at issue is a flat, boggy, treeless place where temperatures can drop as low as 40 degrees below zero. The place, therefore, is virtually uninhabitable by animals most of the year. That was basically the conclusion of an environmental-impact statement prepared by the government back in 1987. Oil development, the statement concluded, would not significantly harm wildlife. This parallels our experience in Prudhoe Bay. Over 25 years, the environment has not been mortally wounded by drilling. And the caribou herds have not diminished but increased– and this when Prudhoe was explored by old-fashioned drilling methods, whose impact has now been considerably reduced by technology.

Minimal impact. Here are some of the new developments: Directional or slant drilling makes it possible to drill numerous wells from a single small production pad, resulting in a footprint so small as to have virtually no impact on wildlife. Even if enormous reserves were discovered, only a fraction of the 1.5 million acres would be affected. There's more. During winter, when no caribou are present, ice roads, ice airstrips, and ice platforms would replace gravel, so that in spring, when the ice melts, the drilling during the harsh winter would have left virtually no footprint. The caribou could then use the coastal plain, as they normally do, as a calving ground. The danger of a devastating oil spill is also remote. Pipelines for transferring oil to the lower 48 are now punctuated by elevated elbows so that if one section ruptures, only the oil between the elbows leaks. Undersea portions of pipeline run virtually without valves, which is where breaches usually occur.

But is there enough oil up there to warrant environmental risk? Nobody knows for sure, although some estimates suggest there may be as much as 20 billion barrels under the tundra. This is nearly double Prudhoe Bay, where production far exceeded original estimates. Prudhoe has provided about a fifth of our domestic oil production for more than 20 years. This would seem to justify at least a test of the coastal plain.

Still, any drilling must be preceded by a fair and plausible assessment of environmental risk. The other part of the calculus, of course, must be the potential benefit of drilling, since we now depend on imports for up to 56 percent of our consumption. That's up from 36 percent during the Persian Gulf War. Our national security and foreign policy cannot be held hostage to Arab producers supported by anticapitalist, anti-U.S. populists in Venezuela. Turmoil in Iran, aggression by Iraq, or instability in Saudi Arabia could have as devastating an effect on supply and prices as it did in the 1970s. The ultimate wild card, obviously, is Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi despot controls 2.5 million barrels a day–another factor in the decision confronting us over drilling in Alaska.

Seen in this light, there's no doubt about it: More domestic oil production is needed if we are to offset the threat posed to our economy by dependence on foreign oil. Three dollars off a barrel would save Americans as much as $20 billion a year. Every $10-per-barrel increase costs Americans $65 billion. Drilling in Alaska's coastal plain that yielded, say, 20 billion barrels would provide about $500 billion–and cut several hundred billion dollars of imports.

The argument over oil versus environmentalism is too important to be decided by slogans and slick imagery. The mating habits of 129,000 porcupine caribou are obviously of concern. But so is the welfare of 281 million Americans.

JWR contributor Mort Zuckerman is editor-in-chief and publisher of U.S. News and World Report. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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© 2001, Mortimer Zuckerman