Opening the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration and development won a key vote in Congress last week, but the battle over ANWR is far from over.
Democrats in the Senate have promised to block any ANWR drilling proposal when they consider President Bush's energy policy after the August recess.
Winning support for opening ANWR would be easier if arguments for and against were on a level playing field. They are not. Pro-ANWR arguments tend to be economic; anti-ANWR sentiment tugs on the public's heartstrings with its symbolism.
Forget jobs and energy policy, opponents of opening ANWR deliver the subliminal message: Drill in ANWR and destroy the nation's unspoiled arctic wilderness.
As Rep. David Bonier, D-Mich., argued in Wednesday's House debate: "This is no ordinary land. It's a cathedral of nature, an American heritage. And it's our responsibility to protect it."
Bonier, of course, is right. ANWR is unique, and it is our responsibility to protect this magnificent land in which we live.
Drilling in ANWR and protecting the national wildlife refuge, however, are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to do both -- and do both we must.
More than 20 years of experience on the North Slope offers plenty of evidence that developing ANWR's coastal plain poses little threat to the region's ecology. Wildlife and oil and gas development can mix. The Central Arctic caribou herd at Prudhoe Bay, which has grown from 6,000 in 1978 to more than 27,000 today, is a good example.
The coastal plain of ANWR also is not the nation's last wilderness. That doesn't give anyone the license to ruin it, but the scope of oil and gas activities should be put in perspective. The United States Department of Interior estimates the footprint of oil activities would affect less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the refuge's 19 million acres. Ninety-two percent of ANWR remains closed to development; almost half is designated as "wilderness."
Is developing ANWR totally without risk? No, nothing is.
But the oil companies -- and Alaska -- have everything to lose and nothing to gain by not taking every conceivable step to ensure environmentally responsible development. Today's technology makes it possible.
Alaskans should bristle at the argument that the reason so many of them -- polls say nearly 75 percent -- support opening ANWR to energy exploration is because it is tied to their bank accounts. Yes, Alaskans benefit greatly from the oil and gas industry; they also have first-hand knowledge of that industry. They support opening ANWR because they see the economic benefits -- and they know those benefits can be realized without spoiling the land they love.
There likely are some Alaskans who long for the good old days prior to the discovery of oil in the state, but we wonder if they would be willing to give up all the conveniences and contraptions powered by fossil fuels to return to those days.
Which brings us to this point: No matter how much oil there is, it is still a limited amount. Eventually, it will run out. It doesn't make sense to pump it out of the ground only to fuel our penchant for gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles. That's not wise stewardship.
Opening ANWR is no panacea for the nation's energy ills. It should play an important role in the nation's energy policy, but Alaskans' arguments for opening ANWR would have far more teeth if they went hand-in-hand with conservation measures, a real push for alternative sources of energy and fuel efficiency standards.
Alaskans should take the lead in insisting on those elements as part of the nation's energy policy -- and following through on actions that support such measures. They might find support for ANWR gets new momentum with such a push.
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