How to fight our addiction to Saudi oil

Posted: Jul 23, 2002 12:00 AM
NORTH SLOPE, ALASKA -- Late last month, as we came in for a gravel runway landing at this barren spot north of the Arctic circle, I thought of an e-mail I had recently received from a liberal friend. Attaching an article about Saudi Arabian corruption and ruthlessness, he noted: "We should be really worried about the Saudis. Better to get off the oil addiction, asap." Boy, that's the truth -- but how? I'm all in favor of turning off electric lights and conditioning ourselves to comfortable but not refrigerated air. We should share rides when practical, telecommute when possible and not buy behemoth vehicles when we don't need them -- although we should remember that big families often need big cars. Amid June snow flurries, I walked around the Arctic petroleum facilities that I had seen from the air. I had envisioned seeing the trash and debris typical of old-time oil fields, but here the tundra was clear. The facilities up here actually display one of the environmental movement's victories -- the new technology that has come in over the past decade in response to ecological concerns allows oil workers to make only a very small footprint in this vast land. That technology also allows us to increase our domestic oil flow with not much more environmental impact than spitting in a lake. All we have to do is to open up for production a part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that is just as desolate as the ground I walked upon last month. The U.S. Geological Survey says there is a 95 percent probability that at least 6 billion barrels of oil can be recovered from Alaska's ANWR --and that amount could readily go to 10 billion barrels. Others say16 billion barrels is a reasonable figure. You may have seen television network news portrayals of ANWR this spring when the House of Representatives approved but the Senate voted down a bill to open up a part of the refuge for production. The two-minute propaganda reports showed beautiful lakes and hills, and those are present in the southern part of ANWR -- but nobody's asking to drill there. The oil deposits are at North Slope latitude, only 20 degrees short of the North Pole. With a House-Senate conference committee now meeting to debate and perhaps reconcile the competing bills, I hope the assembled political leaders look at the facts and not just the reactions of their constituents and contributors. For example, drilling for oil way up north is not like drilling for oil in Texas a generation ago. Up here, six-acre gravel drilling pads are used to tap vast oil fields and are removed when drilling is complete. What is that tiny and temporary scar worth to us? Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham says that "average estimates" of ANWR's reserves suggest there's enough there "to replace oil imports from the Persian Gulf region for 10 years, or from Iraq for 50 years." It's true that it would take a few years for ANWR oil to make such a difference, but if we don't start now we won't be any better off down the road. And what of the wildlife? First, ANWR use would affect no more than 12,000 (some say 2,000) of the wildlife refuge's 19 million acres. Second, look at the record: Some environmentalists predicted that the oil pipeline would doom the Alaskan caribou, but caribou herds have increased since its construction. The caribou appear to like the little ridge on which the pipeline sits, because it helps them escape the real marauders of the tundra: not men, mosquitoes. During the 600-mile flight back to Anchorage, sitting in the cockpit, I was able to get a different look at descending into a cloudbank than is available from a passenger window. The clouds from in front looked almost like a wall, but the pilot without hesitation flew right in, and anyone who said the cloud was a wall would lose his license. As the House-Senate conference committee meets, I hope senators will not once again see clouds as barriers. We have two main options: Rely on corrupt Saudi leaders, or dive into the cloud.