Finally! The Bush Administration has released some of the most closely guarded material of this administration. No, it didn't divulge nuclear secrets or the recipe of Coca-Cola. Instead, it released a videotape containing images the television networks don't want you to see; images of, well, nothing. Or to be more specific, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge at night.
This may not sound like a big deal, but for lots of ANWR-watchers it's a breakthrough. What's so special about ANWR at night? Well, nothing. And that's the point, according to supporters of President Bush's initiative to open 2,000 out of ANWR's 19.6 million acres to oil exploration.
Whenever the news networks "report" about ANWR, they show footage of the area during the day, with pictures of rollicking bears, chirping birds and grass-chewing caribou basking in the glorious sunlight. Never mind that they invariably show the beautiful parts of the Arctic refuge where it would be illegal to drill (only a small portion of the reserve can even be considered for exploration, according to an act of Congress).
Anyway, the hitch is that during the summer, there is no "night" in ANWR. The sun shines round-the-clock, 24 hours a day, for nearly two months. When I was there in July, the sun shone brighter at 2 a.m. than it's shining right now at noon, outside my Washington, D.C., window. My wife, who hails from Fairbanks, hundreds of miles to the south of ANWR, grew up playing midnight softball on the Fourth of July, in broad daylight.
The reverse happens in the winter. The sun doesn't shine for roughly 56 straight days. The summertime images of bears and caribou are replaced by, well, unending darkness and snow. The 70 degrees-below-zero temperatures - not counting wind-chill - render the coastal plane of ANWR devoid of life. There are no caribou there. The bears are buried in their dens, far from the coast. The birds have headed way south for the winter. It's cold on top of coldness.
The significance of this is simple: According to the president's proposals and the industry's current practices, all of the drilling and road-building would take place only in the dead of an Arctic winter. The roughnecks and engineers would stop work between May and November and tippy-toe out of the caribou's way. Though it should be pointed out that the caribou population at nearby Prudhoe Bay increased fivefold since they started drilling for oil there, which might suggest that oil-drilling and caribou are not natural enemies.
In all honesty, I'm not a zealot about drilling in ANWR. There are some legitimate arguments against drilling there, even if I don't agree with them. Higher fuel-efficiency regulations on cars, for example, could save more oil than ANWR might produce (we don't know how much oil is in there; guesses range from 3 billion barrels to 16 billion).
But many opponents of drilling are simply immune to reason. They talk about how beautiful this area is without having seen it. They denounce road-building because it would, as Jimmy Carter wrote in a New York Times op-ed, "pollute the wild music of the Arctic," without noting that nobody would be there in wintertime to hear this "wild music" or that the roads would be made entirely of ice and melt in the spring.
Opponents gripe about how pristine ANWR is without conceding that being "pristine" and beautiful aren't synonymous (see a mint condition AMC Pacer, for example). They note solemnly that it is an area "untouched" by mankind, without acknowledging that indigenous people, the Inupiat Eskimos, have lived there for centuries - and favor drilling for oil.
And, they wail, another group of indigenous people - the so-called gentle Gwich'in people - are opposed to oil exploration, without mentioning that the Gwich'in live hundreds of miles from where the drilling would take place or that the Gwich'in struck out looking for oil on their own land in the 1980s.
The release of the nighttime ANWR video is a sign that the Bush administration is finally challenging the anti-drilling propaganda. And it's clearly making some Democrats angry.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., demanded to know what the Administration spent on the video. The interior department's response says it all. "We did an analysis of how much money was invested in putting together the videos," Interior spokesman Mark Pfeifle told the Washington Times. "ANWR videos: $95.81. Postage to send ANWR videos to network news anchors: $43.55. Informing Americans about what the real Alaska North Slope looks like in the dead of winter: Priceless."
Priceless, and long overdue.