Energy policy, ANWR deserve clean debate, free of unrelated issues

Posted: Friday, December 07, 2001

Today's political test: What do a railroad retirement bill, a six-month ban on human cloning and national energy policy, including opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration and development, have in common?

You're correct if you answered nothing.

Why, then, were they all lumped together for a vote in the U.S. Senate earlier this week?

Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski, who was involved in the effort to attach the energy bill to the railroad retirement measure, said the intent was to get the ANWR issue on the front burner for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

"Before last week, we didn't even have an energy bill up for discussion," Murkowski, a Republican, said in a statement earlier this week. "It's better to get it up and to get people talking about it, and that's what we've done."

While Murkowski's intentions can be applauded, his method leaves something to be desired.

Fortunately, the effort failed -- even Murkowski voted against it. An energy policy for the nation, a component of which is opening ANWR, is too important to be lumped with other, unrelated measures. The energy policy deserves a good clean debate without other legislation muddying the waters.

We're not naive. We know there's nothing unusual about lumping unrelated pieces of legislation together for the purpose of making a statement or increasing chances of the legislation passing or failing. But while it may be common practice, that doesn't make it the right thing to do.

Government leaders who wonder why there's so much disgust and apathy toward "the system" need only look as far as this week's shenanigans -- business as usual, really -- to understand why. The practice of piggybacking one bill onto another is nothing more than political gamesmanship and puts the entire legislative process in an ugly light. It makes the process harder to understand, which creates distrust of the system.

And the effort did nothing to move the nation closer to a comprehensive energy policy or advance the cause of opening ANWR.

Daschle has promised to schedule debate on the energy policy by February. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats have outlined an energy package that, unlike the one passed by the House in July, rejects drilling in ANWR.

Alaskans, of course, are focused on that part of the energy plan that would open ANWR. That focus may be one of the reasons emotion has played such a huge role in the debate over ANWR.

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 the oil and gas found there would not come on line for years. ANWR is not an immediate answer, but it remains an important component to meeting the nation's energy needs in the future. The longer, however, the nation waits to open ANWR, the longer it will be before that oil and gas can factor into the energy equation. And the economic boost that opening ANWR will provide is delayed even longer.

Still, to the uninitiated, those arguments sound like only so much greed at work when compared to the message that drilling should not be allowed in ANWR because the refuge is, as one representative described it, "a cathedral of nature."

Supporters of opening ANWR have failed in describing the scope of oil and gas activities: The U.S. 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. Plus, more than 20 years experience on the North Slope offers plenty of evidence that wildlife can mix with oil and gas development. This is not an either-or proposition of "pristine wilderness" or "oil and gas development"; both are possible.

Even more, however, supporters of opening ANWR have failed to get the message out that opening ANWR is only one part of a national energy policy. Other important components should include conservation measures, a push for alternative sources of energy and fuel efficiency standards.

Otherwise, the nation will end up with a short-sighted energy policy that serves as a Band-Aid, but gives politicians the opportunity to say "Look what we did." The United States needs an energy policy with substance, and part of that is opening ANWR. To get there from here, the issue needs a fair, full public debate -- free of emotional rhetoric and political gamesmanship.

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