Alaskans are again abuzz about the possibility that the current political climate is favorable to finally opening the coastal plain of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. And with good reason.
With the Nov. 2 defeat of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle a staunch opponent of drilling in the refuge as well as an increased 55-45 Senate majority for Republicans, it now looks as if Congress may again be on the verge of opening the refuge to drilling.
Alaska Senator Ted Stevens has said he believes drilling can pass as part of a budget bill in the Senate, and Rep. Don Young has promised the House will support opening the 1.5 million acre coastal plain to exploration.
This is not the first time Alaskans have been led to believe the battle to open ANWR is on the verge of being won. In 1995, then President Bill Clinton vetoed a bill that would have allowed oil companies to begin probing the 8 percent of the 17 million acre refuge to development. But with President Bush saying domestic drilling is a cornerstone of his energy policy, that roadblock no longer remains.
And just last year, the Senate narrowly rejected a budget provision that would have allowed drilling, voting 52-48 against in a bitter defeat for Stevens. At the time, Alaska's senior senator vowed in a press release to "fight another day."
It appears as if that day has now come.
It's estimated that ANWR harbors somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 billion barrels of oil. When compared to the enormous fields of the Middle East and Russia, this is not a huge amount on a global scale. However, the fact is that the coastal plain is likely to be the largest remaining field in the United States a fact that cannot be forgotten as we try to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
Estimates say opening ANWR would likely cause the United States to reduce its dependence on foreign oil by around 5 percent. Drilling opponents are likely to claim that this is a drop in the bucket, but a five percent reduction on foreign oil would represent a huge step in the right direction nonetheless, and would certainly ease at least somewhat how beholden we are to the whims of OPEC ministers and uncertain geopolitics.
Opening ANWR is necessary to enable the Trans-Alaska pipeline to continue operating into the next century. With the addition of 800,000 or more barrels per day of ANWR oil, the pipeline could remain viable for decades to come. Without ANWR, it has been estimated the pipeline will have to cease operations by as early as 2025. This is a danger that cannot be overestimated. If the pipeline stops flowing, Alaska dies period.
That the current climate is favorable to drilling is a good sign for Alaskans. However, the debate over drilling again highlights our dependence in Alaska on oil money to fill the state's coffers. While we look toward a future that appears bright with the prospect of new oil and gas developments, we should also continue to seek out ways to diversify our economy and reduce the amount of oil money that pays for state services.
Even with ANWR open for development, Alaska's oil will some day run out. Drilling can help bridge the gap between that day and today, but that doesn't change the fact that long-term fiscal planning and economic diversity still hold the key to Alaska's future.
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