At 54-46, the Senate vote against oil exploration in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge looks like a major thumping of Alaska's two senators and drilling proponents.
It's a defeat, for sure. But this battle isn't over, and as celebration on one side and anger on the other subside, it's a good time to take a deep breath and regroup.
First, Alaskans and the rest of the nation will be able to make a much smarter call if both drilling backers and foes cut the vitriol and hyperbole. Drilling proponents should stop seeing environmental conspiracies at every turn, and opponents should cool their imagery of an arctic paradise laid to waste. That's not what this debate is about.
Gov. Tony Knowles, a staunch supporter of opening ANWR to exploration, is right when he calls for more refined arguments in favor of drilling, arguments that will counter real concerns of Americans about environmental damage. Let's be straightforward about what oil exploration means. Even if the industry never spills a drop of oil in ANWR, there will be scars. But they needn't be extensive, and the combination of state-of-the-art technology and rigorous oversight can keep damage to a minimum and, most importantly, keep ANWR's wildlife unscathed.
Environmentalists should stop exaggerating the effects of development. You'd think, given some of the hysteria, that the oil companies were on the verge of paving the coastal plain and driving caribou into the sea. Not so. It's in their own interests to tread this ground with as light a step as possible.
Alaska drilling advocates should drop that tired old tactic of trying to paint foes as less than Alaskan. That's nonsense. Sen. Ted Stevens, who should know better, seemed to dismiss the Gwich'in foes of ANWR drilling as meddling Canadians, co-opted by environmental organizations and incapable of determining their own stand on ANWR. That's an insult, and serves no good purpose.
A majority of Alaskans back ANWR exploration. Many do not. For some, the coastal plain of ANWR, forbidding as it may be in the dead of winter, is a cathedral. To them, whatever oil waits to be tapped beneath its surface is irrelevant. They're no less Alaskan for thinking that way, even though their position defies real-world demands for making tough choices.
The strongest case for oil exploration won't be made in name-calling and counterhype, but on the merits. The United States needs oil. Alaskans stand to benefit. Exploration and drilling can't leave the refuge untouched, but it can be done with painstaking care for the environment.
Even if drilling began today, it would be three to five years before the nation saw any oil from the refuge. But what would happen if the nation were subjected to another oil embargo, or if in the course of the violent, volatile world of the Middle East, supplies were cut off by war or internal strife? How fast would Congress open the refuge then, and how would accelerated development cut into environmental safeguards?
Now we still have a chance to explore in a careful, deliberate way that leaves the refuge worthy of the name. The chance, but not the votes. While there's a cease-fire in this battle, we urge both sides to shoot straight next time. If they do, the case for drilling will become clearer.
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