ANWR arguments need fine-tuning before next round

Posted: Sunday, March 23, 2003

Last week's defeat in the U.S. Senate of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge provides more proof of the truth that close only counts when it comes to horseshoes and hand grenades.

A motion to strike ANWR revenues from the 2004 budget resolution was approved by the slimmest of margins, 52-48. The vote means the coastal plain of ANWR won't be opened for drilling any time soon.

Alaskans, of course, are disappointed, even angry, and for good reason. While it would be many years before coming on line, ANWR oil is one of Alaska's best hopes for major new resource development. It is the "new oil" Alaskans continue to hope will provide a way out of the uncomfortable belt-tightening, budget-cutting, tax-talking days to which they've spent themselves.

The Senate action begs the question: If there isn't enough support for opening ANWR when the Republican stars are perfectly aligned (you know, a Republican in the White House, a Republican-dominated Congress, a Republican in Alaska's governor's mansion and a Republican-dominated state Legislature), when the U.S. is at war with Iraq and who knows what will happen in the Middle East and to the oil there, and when gas prices are edging toward $2 a gallon, when will there be enough support?

Clearly, Alaskans need to rethink their strategy in convincing the rest of the nation that opening ANWR is the right and responsible thing to do. They also need to regroup on solving the state's budget woes, since it's obvious they won't be able to count on a pot of oil at the end of the rainbow to fill the budget gap any time soon.

As far as strategy, the next time ANWR is considered in Washington, D.C., it should be done as part of a comprehensive energy proposal -- not as part of a budget bill or a railroad retirement measure as it was in 2001. There should be nothing that could be perceived as political gamesmanship surrounding ANWR. It can stand on its own merits -- and should.

While it's hard to battle the image that drilling in ANWR will destroy the nation's last remaining unspoiled arctic wilderness, Alaskans gladly should accept the challenge. That opening ANWR is such a tough sell should reinforce to Alaskans what a valuable resource the state's environment is. While Alaskans know the scope of oil and gas activities would be limited to a small sliver of the refuge -- less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the refuge's 19 million acres -- that small sliver is a lot of wilderness to someone who has none.

The rest of the nation is looking to Alaska to do things differently -- better -- than they were done in other states. Let's not disappoint them. State-of-the-art technology makes it possible to preserve wilderness and reap the benefits of oil and gas development.

In addition to convincing opponents that oil and wilderness can mix, supporters of opening ANWR need to acknowledge that ANWR is only one part of a national energy policy. Alaskans would be more convincing about ANWR if they took the lead in pushing for conservation measures, alternative sources of energy and fuel efficiency standards.

Let's face it: Oil is not a renewable resource. No matter how much ANWR contains, it will eventually run dry.

For Alaska, and the rest of the nation, not to be engaged more aggressively in cutting the consumption of oil and developing and using other sources of energy is shortsighted at best. Likewise, for the state to hinge its hopes on new oil for a major source of new revenues is like someone pinning their hopes on winning the lottery to get out of debt. It's just not likely to happen.

While recent world events may have strengthened arguments that the United States needs to lessen its dependence on foreign oil -- and opening ANWR would certainly do that -- it is imperative that those who favor opening ANWR acknowledge it is no panacea for the nation's energy ills -- or the state's budget woes.

ANWR should play an important role in the nation's energy policy, but Alaskans' arguments for opening ANWR will have far more teeth when the state takes a lead on conservation measures, alternative sources of energy and fuel efficiency standards.

In fact, Alaskans might find support for ANWR gets new momentum with such a push.

And only when state officials stop seeing ANWR as the best cure to the state's budget ills will they have the energy to look at alternative solutions. ANWR is temporarily dead and the state should not wait for its resurrection to move forward on getting the state on firm financial ground.

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