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Saturday, April 12, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Vanessa Pierce / NEXT team

Drill: If this is pristine, you can have it

Editors note:

Should we drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? The U.S. House of Representatives last week resumed the debate on opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, a controversial proposal rejected by the Senate last month. The proposal to permit drilling in the 1.5 million-acre wildlife sanctuary — a priority under President George W. Bushs national energy policy — is part of a comprehensive energy bill. Democrats will likely introduce an amendment to remove the ANWR provision from the bill. NEXT writers Vanessa Pierce and Erica Terence debate their views on this heated partisan issue.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Gas prices are up at the pump and the Middle East crisis is more real than ever. Oil is a big concern once again. What does that mean for Seattle? It means that the environmental activists will get louder in the coming months.

But, more importantly, it means that there is a compelling case, now more than ever, to drill in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Yes, the ANWR debate is back.

In Washington, D.C., the Democrats and Republicans are butting heads again over the issue. In March, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., unveiled legislation that would designate ANWR as a federal wilderness area, and Republicans are trying to maneuver pro-drilling legislation through various committees.

The liberals’ argument can be condensed into one word: “pristine.” Lieberman has said ANWR is, “one of the most beautiful, pristine places that the good Lord has created on Earth” and “one of God’s most awesome creations.” His point: The U.S. shouldn’t drill in the refuge because that would ruin it.

Few want to overrun a pristine wilderness, but the problem with the liberals’ argument is that they are ignoring some important information. The place where drilling would occur is less than beautiful and the reasons to drill outweigh saving a piece of land that isn’t even worthy of TV news’ “beauty shot.”

Maybe the liberals would admit this if they went to visit ANWR or acknowledged the facts.

Former Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, described ANWR as a “flat, treeless, almost featureless plain (where) temperatures can drop to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit (and) there are 56 days of total darkness during the year, and almost nine months of harsh winter.”

And when the snow melts, it is no better. The tundra is consumed by peat bogs and mud puddles and is home to armies of mosquitoes. According to a National Review interview of a villager in nearby Nuisquit, “On a bad day you can’t open your mouth for fear of inhaling the mosquitoes.”

The environmentalists also fear that the U.S. would disturb the habitat of the Porcupine Caribou if it were to drill in Alaska. Well, if the Porcupine Caribou can live among the mosquitoes then they can live among the drill equipment.

In fact, many caribou have. In the nearby North Slope in Prudhoe Bay, where there are developed oil fields, the caribou have flourished, according to a 2001 Alaska state survey. Alaskan biologists believe the herd has grown to a population of 27,000, which is up 35 percent since the 1997 survey. The herd continues to expand, according to the biologists who began a caribou population assessment in the early 1970s when oil companies began developing Prudhoe Bay.

When we are talking about either saving a small portion of the not-so-beautiful coastal plain or providing the Americans with an independent oil supply, the decision to drill should be easy.

ANWR is 1.5 million acres. The Republicans are only looking to drill in the coastal plain, the only place where it is legal. Two thousand acres total — or one one-hundredth of 1 percent — of ANWR would be developed. The problem with our oil reliance on the Middle East can be traced back to the Clinton administration. According to Sean Hannity’s book, “Let Freedom Ring,” between 1993 and 2000, U.S. oil imports from the Persian Gulf increased by 38 percent, from 1.8 million barrels a day to 2.4 million a day. By 2020, if the imports go on unchecked, the U.S. Department of Energy predicts that oil imports will rise to 62 percent, half of which would come from the Middle East.

If we can count on up to 16 billion barrels of oil from ANWR, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, then drilling seems well worth the effort, especially if that amount is as much as we would otherwise import from Saudi Arabia alone over the next 30 years. Americans can have both: more than 99 percent of ANWR and an independent domestic supply of oil.

What’s the hesitation?

The tree-hugging environmentalists need to stop whining and jump into reality for a minute. Is it better to save a mud puddle in the refuge or to wean Americans off a hostile Middle East oil dependency?

Vanessa Pierce is a UW senior. She recently finished an internship on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. E-mail: NEXT@seattletimes.com

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