You know the ANWR debate has reached the big time when “60 Minutes” correspondent Leslie Stahl is standing near an oil platform on the North Slope in a parka, skirt and knee-high insulated boots.
Stahl flew to the Prudhoe Bay complex and the disputed ANWR coastal plain for her story that aired on “60 Minutes” May 27. She spoke with Gov. Tony Knowles and representatives of both sides of the issue. One of her pressing points to Knowles was the discrepancy over the supposed amount of recoverable oil in the refuge. Proponents of drilling have estimated as many as 16 billion barrels while opponents and the US Geological Survey believe recoverable barrels to be much less, as few as 3.5 billion. Stahl asked why a more accurate estimate has not been produced using advanced technology. Knowles had no answer.
The amount of recoverable oil in the refuge as measured in barrels is a moot point. As long as enough oil exists under the refuge to make drilling economically feasible it will be extracted. It is not a question of if, but when. The recent power shift in Congress, with the defection of Vt. Sen. James Jeffords from the Republican Party, will only prolong the inevitable.
The fact is America wants oil, needs oil. We are a mobile society. The first driver's test is a ceremony of adulthood. The automobile is as much a symbol of freedom as the Liberty Bell. We will only sacrifice them when absolutely necessary. Americans gave up their gas-guzzling sedans and station wagons for more economical vehicles in response to the oil shortage of the 1970s. As soon as fuel prices went back down the guzzlers reappeared, this time in huge four-wheel-drive form completely unnecessary for the suburbanites who purchase them.
Americans want oil and lots of it. Americans want the lights to come on at the flip of a switch, our homes and businesses warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Americans want to fill their gas tanks quickly and conveniently–we just don't want to pay a lot for it. And we don't care where it comes from as long as any environmental damage remains outside our borders.
Proponents of drilling in ANWR see it as a way to reduce our dependence on foreign supply. Even if the high estimate of recoverable oil in the refuge proves correct any reduction of foreign supply will be short-lived and insignificant. America consumes one-quarter of the world's annual oil production while internally producing only five-percent.
Opponents argue that we must find alternative sources of energy and reduce consumption. This is a noble goal and will, eventually, become necessary. But Americans are not going to actively seek alternative energy sources until the last drop of profitable oil is wrung from the earth. We won't leave the party until the keg is dry.
In the case of ANWR, Alaskans will reap the benefits and suffer the consequences. Let's face it—the Alaska economy runs on oil. Until state legislators develop a reasonable economic plan oil will continue to pay the bills. Considering the track record of the legislature we have to hope the high estimate is correct.
Tourism is not the answer and the consequences are evident. Alaska roads and rivers are choked with people and vehicles. Debate continues over the most economically viable and environmentally safe way to transport increasing numbers of tourists into Denali National Park. Overwhelming numbers of humans trampling the riverbank threatens critical salmon spawning areas on the Kenai River. Cruise ships continue to pollute pristine waters with ship waste and smother Southeast Alaska communities with engine exhaust.
When it comes to oil exploration and drilling, environmentalists are the Chicago Cubs to the industry's New York Yankees. The Cubs will get a few hits, enough to keep the pitcher honest, and may even win a game—but they lose the series. The Democrats regaining power in Congress is nothing but a double down the left field line. The inning is far from over.
It is a simple case of supply and demand. The oil industry may get a bad rap, often times deserved, but they supply what we demand. Consumers interviewed at filling stations by national news programs grumble and complain over rising gas prices, but they are still filling their tanks.