The House recently approved federal legislation that would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. I doubt the Senate will pass similar legislation, but I feel compelled to explain why opening the Arctic Refuge is a bad idea.
One of the most emotional arguments in favor of opening the refuge is to reduce our dependence on OPEC oil. But according to Amory Lovins, co-founder and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute (www.rmi.com), a Colorado-based resource policy think tank, the percentage of OPEC oil the U.S. imports is down 33% since its peak in 1977.
Another crisis? Yet just a few months ago gasoline prices topped $2 per gallon, and we seemed on the brink of an energy crisis. Since then prices have come down despite the summer travel season, and oil company profits are up. Chalk these incongruities up to coincidence or perhaps political intrigue.
Though no one knows how much oil lies beneath the Arctic Refuge, Lovins projects that just a 0.4 mpg increase in fleet fuel economy would offset whatever reserves there are. And with no guarantee that future oil prices will generate enough profits to recoup the massive investment oil companies would have to make to extract oil from one of the harshest and most inhospitable places on the planet, making that investment would seem a foolish business decision.
Another argument: And that's another of Lovins' most powerful arguments. He says oil companies don't even want access to the refuge. It's too expensive. When oil companies can't make money, they lose interest quickly. Someone needs to remind President Bush of this basic economic principle.
Transporting arctic oil is another serious problem. Lovins explains that moving oil through the aging Trans-Alaska Pipeline is risky on two fronts. First, maintenance costs would be staggering, and even then there's no guarantee that major leaks and spills would not occur. More serious, and this is something I'd never considered, is the security risk the pipeline poses. What an easy target a pipeline crossing remote terrain would be for terrorists. Imagine spending ten years and billions of dollars to prepare the refuge for exploitation and then having several segments of an unprotected pipeline destroyed by terrorists. It probably wouldn't kill many people, but what a waste of time and resources. Are oil companies prepared to add the expense of pipeline security to their operations, or would this responsibility fall to the government (read "taxpayers")?.
Don't need it: The most compelling argument against drilling for arctic oil is that we simply don't need it. Less than three percent of our nation's electricity comes from oil. The rest comes from coal and natural gas-fired power plants, nuclear facilities, hydropower, and increasingly, wind and solar power.
By the time we could get arctic oil to market, about 10 years by most estimates, we won't need it. Fuel efficiency can compensate for many tankers of oil. Lovins reports that in Europe today a four-seat subcompact VW gets 78-mpg. A 235-mpg model is planned for 2003.
Furthermore, within 10 years and perhaps as soon as five years, we'll be driving hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars and trucks. Hydrogen is safer, cheaper, and more efficient than gasoline and will spell the end for oil companies that fail to accept a future based on hydrogen-based energy.
The sources: Lovins credits three sources -- Shell Hydrogen CEO Don Huberts, fuel-cell pioneer Geoffery Ballard, and ex-Saudi Oil Minister Sheikh Yamani -- with a lesson that summarizes this whole story: "The Stone Age did not end because the world ran out of stones, and the Oil Age will not end because the world runs out of oil."
Other than the President, few are pushing hard for Arctic Refuge oil. One pro-arctic oil group is the state of Alaska and its congressional delegation. Alaskans pay no income taxes. Instead they receive annual rebate checks tied to the use of the state's natural resources. So many love the idea of refuge oil. But the Arctic Refuge is federal, not state, property. It belongs to all of us.
We don't need oil from the Arctic Refuge, and we cannot afford it -- economically, environmentally, or strategically. Instead, let's protect and preserve the Western Hemisphere's last intact ecosystem.