Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

O Give Me a Plain, Where the Caribou Roam...



September 25, 2000

European protests and American grumbling have, in part, fueled OPEC's willingness last week to increase output by the end of the year in an effort to alleviate escalating prices and meet market demands. This present energy "crisis" has amplified a 25-year-old debate over untapped reserves in Alaska. The debate in turn demonstrates the need for policy reforms.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) covers 19 million acres. Established by Congress in 1980, ANWR contains 17.5 million acres closed to roads, development, logging, and mining. Congress set aside the remaining 1.5 million acres for possible oil production; this area consists of a 125-mile-long coastal plain, of which only 30 miles are designated wilderness. Beneath this boggy, treeless tundra reportedly lie billions of barrels of oil.

Pressure to bring that oil to market has increased, and industry estimates it needs only 2,000 acres, touting advanced technology and safer, less intrusive practices. But environmentalists object. ANWR is where the hoof meets the tundra, literally. Each year, over 100,000 caribou migrate onto the coastal plain for feeding and calving. Millions of birds, along with bears, wolves, and musk oxen, also congregate there. Environmentalists assert it is impossible not to inflict irrevocable harm and fragment this vital ecosystem.

Industry has lobbied for leases, just as environmentalists have pressed for full protection of the plain, regardless of any subsurface resources. Drilling proponents estimate 16 billion barrels of oil, about a 30-months' supply. Opponents estimate only 3.2 billion barrels, enough for six months. Proponents believe that opening ANWR will signify Congress' non-complicity in the environmentalist myth that all industry activities pose grave environmental threats. Moreover, if oil does not come from ANWR, it will be imported, and increasing imports is not in the best interests of the United States.

Rising fears or hopes that President Clinton might use his powers under the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate the coastal plain a national monument have heightened rhetoric in an election year. Such a lame duck proclamation would effectively close the area for good. The White House steadfastly maintains no such eleventh-hour action is planned but has also restated its opposition to any drilling in ANWR.

What should be done? The decision to open or permanently close the coastal plain should not be made now by either Congress or the President. Even if the plain were opened today, its oil would not reach market for several years, and it would make the US neither self-sufficient nor even significantly less import-dependent. Let us continue pursuing alternatives, while also understanding that a decision cannot be debated and delayed forever. Americans must accept that an infinite, cheap supply of oil does not exist, and our demand for such cannot continue. Conversely, closing the plain now is neither prudent nor necessary.

Furthermore, Congress should restrict use of the Antiquities Act to create national monuments and should establish an extensive more democratic process before new national monuments can be finalized. A decision over ANWR is too complex and important to be decided unilaterally; an issue of this magnitude requires due process. Congress and the next president should exercise wisdom and not capitulate to the hysteria and threats of special interests. They should take the time to develop a coherent, comprehensive, long-term energy policy in cooperation with all players for the sake of the environment, economy, and national security. Such a policy should both protect ANWR wilderness and leave open the option of future recovery of the plain's "contingency fund."

—Jack A. Boeve, Assistant Development Director
   Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”