As I write this, gas costs more than $4 a gallon. By the time you read it, that might be $5. As a result, politicians are clamoring for more oil drilling in the United States. But drilling America dry is not the answer. We need a more balanced energy policy.
We must start by using less oil. Energy efficiency isn’t just a “personal virtue,” as Vice President Dick Cheney once called it. It’s good business. When Toyota was investing in the Prius, General Motors was investing in the Hummer. Which company made the better business decision?
Of course, we will continue to need oil, and it’s better to buy it from domestic producers than foreign dictators. Audubon doesn’t oppose oil and gas drilling in many places in the United States if it is done responsibly. For example, some of our largest and most productive reserves are in Wyoming. We’re not against drilling there, but we are against using old-fashioned technology that places drilling pads so close together it destroys the surface land for ranching and wildlife, particularly declining populations of greater sage-grouse.
Audubon Wyoming took the lead in promoting this balanced view along with ranchers and sportsmen as part of Governor Dave Fruedenthal’s Sage-grouse Implementation Team. The task force recommended using more advanced technology that may reduce drilling pads to one for every 640 acres. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) now has an opportunity to implement that recommendation, providing access to the oil and gas we need while still protecting most of the surface for people and wildlife.
The 23 million-acre National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska is another area with large reserves. It was set aside for oil drilling when the 19 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was set aside for wildlife. We don’t oppose drilling in the petroleum reserve. But it isn’t necessary to do so on every last acre. Audubon scientists in Alaska identified a few relatively small parts of the reserve that should be avoided because they are so sensitive. One is around Teshekpuk Lake, a designated Global Important Bird Area of about 400,000 acres. Millions of migratory waterfowl depend on this wetland for survival. After Audubon brought pressure and persuasion, the BLM agreed to delay leasing around Teshekpuk Lake for at least 10 years until further studies can be completed.
There is a myth that environmentalists are preventing the government from leasing huge domestic oil and gas reserves. The facts show otherwise. About 36 billion barrels of oil sit under federal land, and nearly two-thirds of it already is or can be accessible with proper environmental review. In addition, roughly 80 percent of the estimated 89.5 billion barrels of reserves offshore are already available to industry. Though the government has leased more than 90 million acres to oil companies, some 68 million of those acres remain untapped, including promising fields in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. Industry should set its sights on these places, not try to lock up new and more sensitive areas.
One place that must remain off limits is the Arctic Refuge. We have opposed drilling there for nearly 30 years, and the price of gas won’t change our position. This is our last truly pristine protected wilderness. How could we explain to our children and grandchildren that we sold it to the oil companies in hopes of a temporary break in gas prices?
The bottom line: America has only 3 percent of the world’s oil reserves but consumes a quarter of its production. We can’t drill our way to energy independence or cheap gas. We need an energy policy focused on innovation to develop alternatives to oil, not a policy of using oil until it runs out. The Stone Age didn’t end because people ran out of stones. The next president should set a national goal of converting our transportation fleet to new technologies: hybrid, plug-in hybrid, plug-in electric, fuel cell, and others.
The ongoing debate about energy will determine the quality of the world we leave for future generations. Speak out. And if you want to help, visit Audubon.org.—John Flicker
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