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Tanks for Nothing

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

The drive from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia isn’t long, but it’s certainly becoming expensive. On a recent weekend it cost me $65 to fill up the tank on Interstate 95. If gas continues its march toward $4 per gallon, there’s no telling how much the trip could cost.

It was a worthwhile investment, though. My granddaughters were thrilled to visit the zoo, where they spent time studying polar bears.

The bears are thriving. They can live for 40 years in the zoo. Wild polar bears, meanwhile, live around 30 years, and are also doing well. There are an estimated 20,000-25,000 wild polar bears today, up from an estimated 8,000-10,000 in the late 1960s.

Yet many environmentalists are pressuring the Department of the Interior to list the bear as an endangered species. As the price of gas shows us, though, the real endangered species these days is the American motorist. And, if environmentalists succeed, that problem will only worsen.

New oil and natural gas production in Alaska and in its surrounding waters would immediately be put at risk if the polar bear is listed as “endangered.” There would be virtually no chance to open up even a small portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), an area estimated to contain 10 billion barrels of oil. That’s enough to replace what we’ll import from Saudi Arabia over the next 15 years.

Our government is also leasing oil and gas rights in a vast area off Northwest Alaska estimated to contain 15 billion barrels of oil and 76 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. It’s already conducted extensive studies that show energy exploration in this area would harm no bears. In fact, the leases specifically set aside areas believed to be habitat for polar bears. However, an endangered-species listing would put this highly promising source of domestic oil and gas off limits.

Unfortunately, new energy exploration isn’t the only activity that would run afoul of a polar-bear endangerment listing. Environmentalists want to use fears about global warming to limit our country’s energy use. Otherwise, they warn, the polar bear’s icy habitat could become a watery grave.

According to a 2006 study from the Pew Center for Climate Change, “the nation needs to cut carbon-dioxide emissions from electricity generation by more than 80 percent during the next 50 years to slow the impact of global warming.”

How much would it cost? “This could be done at an overall long-term cost increase in price of electricity of only about 20 percent,” environmental policy expert M. Granger Morgan insists, claiming that’s “a small price to pay to save arctic seals, polar bears, coral reefs and other valuable ecosystems.”

What the United States faces today isn’t an energy crisis. We’ve got plenty of sources of energy, from oil and natural gas in coastal waters (off Alaska, Florida and elsewhere) to coal (enough to provide all our electricity for a century) to nuclear power (which produces electricity without any CO2 emissions).

Yet, even as the price of gasoline has soared, we haven’t built a new petroleum refinery since 1976. We haven’t opened a nuclear power plant in two decades. Gasoline, which should be a commodity (i.e., exactly the same product everywhere) is instead a boutique fuel, with states and cities demanding that refiners produce special blends unique to them. Imagine what would happen to the price of milk if each state placed different restrictions on the vitamins it could be fortified with.

The problem today is a crisis of confidence. We’re not willing to expand our domestic sources of energy, even though we know we can protect the environment while also drilling for oil or refining gasoline.

Unless our government allows us to expand our energy supplies, we’d better get used to overpaying at the pump.

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