Bait and Switch
By Todd Wilkinson
President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney have caused a public uproar with their proposal to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But some conservationists worry that the proposal was a clever ploy to divert attention from plans to ramp up oil, gas, and coal production nationwide, including in sensitive wild areas of the lower 48 states.
The Bush administration has sent clear signals that it hopes to drill and mine in places that, until now, have been off-limits: prime grizzly bear habitat along the breathtaking eastern face of the Rocky Mountains; old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska; delicate marine ecosystems along the coasts of California, Florida, North Carolina, and New England; the sandy shores of the Great Lakes; and various pristine corners of Alaska. The Bush energy plan gives short shrift to conservation and renewable forms of energy, and it aims to build 1,300 to 1,900 new power-generation plants, many of which would be fired by air-sullying coal.
"This is an energy strategy that looks backward," says Perry Plumart, the Audubon Society's director of government relations. "We're not going to reach the future we desire by mining and drilling and blowing the tops off mountains."
Yet what began as an anti-environmental offensive has already turned into defensive maneuvering. The President scaled back ambitious oil- and gas-exploration plans in the Gulf of Mexico after his brother, Florida governor Jeb Bush, joined citizens and other elected officials in condemning the project. When the administration was severely criticized for cutting renewable-energy research by about a third, officials circled back and decided to restore the funding. After Interior Secretary Gale Norton said she might consider "boundary adjustments" in newly declared national monuments, both the House of Representatives and the Senate voted to place these areas off-limits to drilling and mining, and The New York Times declared the issue dead "for at least the next year."
Nevertheless, many environmentalists remained worried, and resource economist Pete Morton of the Wilderness Society set out to determine what the nation would gain from seeking energy in 15 new national monuments. At a high-price scenario of $30 per barrel, companies could extract enough oil to last 15 days, 12 hours, and 28 minutes at current consumption rates. The same land would yield enough natural gas to last 7 days, 2 hours, and 11 minutes, at a price of $3.34 per thousand cubic feet. Morton based his calculations on assessments by the U.S. Geological Survey. What would be lost to extract that minuscule amount of oil and gas? Grand Staircase-Escalante, in southern Utah (projected to yield 4 hours of oil and 1 hour of natural gas), is considered one of the most spectacular arid wilderness retreats left in the world, with an amazing array of geological wonders; Colorado's Canyons of the Ancients (3 hours of oil, 3.5 hours of gas) has the highest density of archeological sites in the United States; the upper Missouri Breaks, in Montana (1 hour of oil, 15 hours of gas), offers one of the two remaining stretches of the unmarred country that greeted Lewis and Clark nearly 200 years ago; and the California Coastal Monument (13 days of oil, 5.5 days of gas) provides habitat for an amazing intersection of land and sea creatures, including some 200,000 birds that move through it on their biannual migration.
"It's ludicrous that our national energy policy is built on plundering our pristine wild places," says Plumart. "The world is awash in oil. There is no shortage." And Lee R. Raymond, the chairman of Exxon Mobil, told BusinessWeek, "The idea that this country can ever again be energy-independent is outmoded."
At present 56 percent of all the oil consumed in the United States is imported, and that number has been on an upward trend. "The only time in the last 50 years that we were able to decrease our dependence on foreign oil was between 1977 and 1984, and that was a result of increased fuel efficiency,"
Morton says. "But then the Reagan administration rolled back efficiency requirements, and our reliance on foreign oil has gone up." Adds Plumart, "If the Bush administration placed half as much faith in energy efficiency as it does in missile defense, we'd be a long way toward achieving a rational energy policy that will get us where we want to go."