Wednesday, March 09, 2005

"No Amount of Make-believe Can Help This Heart of Mine"

UPDATE: Check out the ANWR posts at althippo. Pretty insightful stuff.

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Today, Bush pushed Congress to pass his energy bill, which has been stalled since the beginning of his first term. The hangup, of course, is ANWR.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

According to CNN, Bush said, "[d]eveloping a small section of ANWR would not only create thousands of new jobs, but it would eventually reduce our dependence on foreign oil by up to 1 million barrels of oil a day." The American Petroleum Institute agrees, saying the refuge sits on enough oil to replace U.S. imports from Saudi Arabia for two decades.

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups say hogwash, that the number is off-the-charts exaggerated. They argue that oil reserves beneath the refuge's coastal plain would last less than a year -- and expose the refuge to oil exploration that would irreparably damage it.

As appeasement, Bush said oil exploration can be limited to a 2,000-acre site -- "the size of the Columbus [Ohio] airport" -- and could be done "with almost no impact on land or local wildlife."

I'm not gonna argue about the impact on land or local wildlife. Having worked in a tundra research lab where we studied the impacts from Prudhoe Bay, I know the impacts are real, long-lasting, and damaging.

I'm passionate about the environment. I studied environmental science and policy in college and graduate school. I've advocated for environmental protection as a lawyer. As an attorney I've also helped defend the U.S. government's environmental-policy agencies from environmental groups. I've seen both sides.

And I love playing and working outside, thinking about being outside, and contemplating all the wonders offered by the earth and its plant and animal inhabitants.

I'm also passionate about finding ways to convince others that "the environment" (an overly generalized term, but it connotes enough meaning for this post) is worth preserving, and natural resources are worth conserving. I leave no option off the table in this endeavor. I welcome all ideas. Social incentives, religious incentives, cultural incentives of other kinds. Economic incentives are potentially the most ethically challenging, but I welcome them most because they work.

Having read this so far, the reader knows where I stand on ANWR. I think opening it to exploration and oil development is ridiculous. But let me reframe the question. Because I don't want you to take my word for it.

Let's say the oil industry is right, and that ANWR could produce enough crude to "replace" our dependence on Saudi Oil for two decades.

First, two decades is an incredibly short time period. My understanding is that estimates show fully alternative-fueled vehicles--if they do at all--will not replace gasoline-fueled combustion engines for at least twenty years, and more like 50 years or more. So where do we get the oil we need beyond the 20 years? I'm not counting fuel oil. And the conversation never seems to include our reliance on other countries' oil, like Venezuela's.

Second, the United States' relationship with Saudi Arabia insists that we purchase their oil and they contribute to stability in the Middle East. If it weren't for Saudi oil, I have no doubt that Saudi Arabia, which already tends in many ways toward de facto recognition of radical Islam and anti-Americanism (think of their support for Egypt in the war against Isreal) would tilt the power balance in the Middle East (even further) away from pro-American interests.

Third, consider this (typical NIMBY) analogy. You own fifteen acres. Your home sits on an eighth of an acre. The rest is wild, beautiful forest. You love it. You spend your free time galavanting in its bounty. You searched high and low for this and you will never move. You also know an oil reserve sits under your land. You know that you could make a million dollars--money beyond your wildest dreams of money--if you sold the rights to that oil and let an oil company suck it up and sell it. However, you also know that there are no other 15-acre lots with wild forest on them. None. And the only lots with forest are not wild. They are used, full of old tires, dead campfires, the shells of cars, the trees are second-growth, rutty dirt roads rip through the heart of them. You get the picture. You wouldn't sell. You are happy with your good fortune and money couldn't change that.

Now add to the analogy. You're one-hundred million dollars in debt because you invested in a bad deal. You could sell the oil, make the million, and pay down a tiny bit of the interest on your debt. But it would barely make a dent. And your beautiful forest would never be the same. So you don't do it. And you try to find a way out of the deal.

We're in deep with fossil fuels. I'm not gonna complain about it because I drive a car, heat my house with natural gas, and own a billion plastic items made from petroleum derivatives. But the cost-benefit analysis doesn't play out in favor of wasting wild lands for one free foot forward in the first mile of the marathon that is reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.

The point is, American citizens own ANWR. It's certainly not forest. I spent a month on the North Slope of Alaska and the closest thing you get to a tree is either a tall bush or a female barren-ground grizzly standing on her hind legs looking at you over the tall bush (which happened to me). But it is incredible, and wild, and virtually untouched.

Sure, there's Prudhoe Bay and its assemblage of oil-industry metal, the National Petroleum Reserve, Atkasuk, and Ivotuk and other native villages and camps, and there are scientists. But east of there, there's nothing but rolling tundra, rich with plant and animal life. It's alive. It's wild. And it's untouched. And ANWR is greater in area than most western states. It's a jewel. Whether you think it's God-given or just there, it's a jewel.

So we shouldn't drill there. 20 years. 50 years. 200 years. No time divorced from Saudi oil is good enough. Because once the drilling starts, ANWR is no longer a jewel. It's a jewel with a chip in it. And that's not good enough. Because no amount of make-believe will make it a whole jewel again.

Fourth, (and this is perhaps the most minor point but also the most politically-frought one) we've fought and are fighting enough wars in the Middle East. Why give up what we've arguably been--at least in part--fighting for: oil coupled with stability.

I'm not going to argue the merits, whether the wars "should have" or "should not have" been fought, or whether we "should be" in Iraq. I think there are good reasons to be there now that we are there. But I have no doubt that if we didn't care so much about Saudi oil and Saudi Arabia as a power broker, we would think longer and harder about putting boots on the ground in the Middle East.

(I realize there's the Saudi price-control issue, the Isreali issue, the spreading-freedom-and-democracy issue, and the anti-terrorism issue; all valid points that I am not minimalizing here, but don't have time to touch.)

In sum: Congress, please, leave the refuge alone.

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"No amount of make-believe can help this heart of mine." Dreamworld, Midnight Oil.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Lizzie McGuire said...

Albeit dull for purposes of debate, I agree with what you are saying.

Perhaps putting energy into finding alternative fuel sources would be time and money better spent.

Unfortunately, this is further evidence of our blind desire to consume ourselves.

9:36 AM  
Anonymous Lizzie McGuire said...

Albeit dull for purposes of debate, I agree with what The Accipiter is saying.

Perhaps putting energy into finding alternative fuel sources would be time and money better spent.

Unfortunately, this is further evidence of our blind desire to consume ourselves.

9:38 AM  
Anonymous alt hippo said...

Thanks for your post.

It sounds like you have first-hand knowledge of some of these issues, which will be a big help when the debate gets lively.

One of the canards that I keep seeing is that because the Prudoe Bay drilling increased the size of the caribou herd, all environmental arguments regarding ANWR are bogus.

There's a number of sites that are actively promoting disinformation out there, and it's important to shoot down the canards.

1:11 PM  

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