George Will

WASHINGTON -- In 1986, Gale Norton was 32 and working for the secretary of the interior on matters pertaining to the proposal to open a small portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- area 1002 -- to drilling for oil and natural gas, a proposal that then had already been a bone of contention for several years. Today Norton is the secretary of the interior and is working on opening ANWR.

     But this interminable argument actually could end soon with Congress authorizing drilling. That would be good for energy policy and excellent for the nation's governance.

     Area 1002 is 1.5 million of ANWR's 19 million acres. In 1980, a Democratic-controlled Congress at the behest of President Carter set area 1002 aside for possible energy exploration. Since then, although there are active oil and gas wells in at least 36 U.S. wildlife refuges, stopping drilling in ANWR has become sacramental for environmentalists who speak about it the way Wordsworth wrote about the Lake Country.

     Few opponents of energy development in what they call ``pristine'' ANWR have visited it. Those who have and think it is ``pristine'' must have visited during the 56 days a year when it is without sunlight. They missed the roads, stores, houses, military installations, airstrip and school. They did not miss seeing the trees in area 1002. There are no trees.

     Opponents worry that the caribou will be disconsolate about, and their reproduction disrupted by, this intrusion by man. The same was said 30 years ago by opponents of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline that brings heated oil south from Prudhoe Bay. Since the oil began flowing, the caribou have increased from 5,000 to 31,000. Perhaps the pipeline's heat makes them amorous.

     Ice roads and helicopter pads, which will melt each spring, will minimize man's footprint, which will be on a 2,000-acre plot about one-fifth the size of Washington's Dulles Airport. Nevertheless, opponents say the environmental cost is too high for what the ineffable John Kerry calls ``a few drops of oil.'' Some drops. The estimated 10.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil -- such estimates frequently underestimate actual yields -- could supply all the oil needs of Kerry's Massachusetts for 75 years.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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