It was only a matter of time before Alaska's congressional delegation seized on national unease over gasoline prices to justify another attempt at sinking oil wells in a wilderness sanctuary. It's a lame rationale, but no more so than some others these folks have offered.
During the Persian Gulf War, the last time world oil prices were this high, the Alaskans said U.S. military security required opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. In the federal budget struggle of 1995, they urged tapping the refuge to balance the books. And now, as the possibility of a $2-a-gallon summer season approaches, Sen. Frank Murkowski says the refuge's oil is vital to shielding the economy from big swings in the world petroleum market.
The truth is that Murkowski, Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young will favor drilling the refuge even when gasoline is cheaper than bottled water, as it often has been in recent years. This has nothing to do with the nation's interests and everything to do with Alaska's.
Oil is lifeblood in Alaska, funding most of the state's budget and ensuring that citizens get dividends -- not income tax forms -- from their government each year. Thus a congressional delegation that complains of U.S. reliance on foreign oil while winning repeal of a longtime ban on exporting Alaskan crude, then champions security interests while forcing the Interior Department to permit peacetime drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve -- set aside in 1923 for use in war or national calamity.
Production of North Slope oil has indeed declined in recent years, primarily because of oil companies' responses to low world prices and, more recently, the rejected merger of British Petroleum and Amoco. This is worrisome to Alaska, but should it be worrisome to the nation, for whom the Arctic refuge is held in trust?
Each spate of high gasoline prices reminds Americans that our way of life is entirely too reliant on oil, too dependent on imports. We are persuaded anew of the need for a national energy policy that more vigorously promotes conservation and alternative fuels, reduces pollution, slows global warming. We may even change our habits for a time. Then the prices fall and we buy our sport-utility vehicles, give up our bus passes, build our new homes on the suburban fringe.
But even as we wince at today's numbers on the gas pump, most of us understand that we can't drill our way to a short-term solution, given the years it takes to bring new wells into production. We know it's not a long-term answer, either, for at some point the oil will run out. The most we accomplish is to postpone the day of reckoning by some unknown factor. Estimates are that oil under the Arctic refuge might supply the nation's needs for six months or a year, maybe more and maybe less.
For that postponement, should Americans be willing to scatter oil wells across the last pristine sector of Alaska's north coast, a fragile landscape of harsh beauty and critical significance to hundreds of species in the Arctic ecosystem, one of the last big places on the continent where human presence is undetectable? If so, perhaps we should prepare for the post-petroleum era by planning to build hydroelectric dams in the Grand Canyon and to log the Boundary Waters Canoe Area for stove wood.
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