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Alaska's Bubbling Crude

Michael J. Ring

Earlier this month, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt announced plans to open the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska to drilling. In outlining the proposal, Babbitt stated this was a solid compromise based on sound science.

The reality, however, is that the administration has folded and given in to the hungry oil and gas conglomerates. These corporations, many of which hold abysmal environmental records, now have access to four million acres in Northern Alaska, much of which also serves as habitat for threatened or endangered species. The Interior Secretary's proposals are dangerous to both wildlife in the area and, more frighteningly, to the nation's energy policy as a whole.

In fairness, Babbitt's plan is much better than what would be advocated by industry lobbyists and their Republican puppets. According to the Interior Department, the plans will bar exploration in important caribou calving grounds, fishing areas, and nesting zones for birds of prey. Most of the region bordering the coastal plain has been spared from exploration. Further, according to the press release, construction near sensitive rivers is prohibited save for "essential" pipelines and roads.

While these safeguards are welcomed, they do not offer the special level of protection needed in this critical environment. Only thirteen percent of the 4.6 million acre zone is completely closed to leasing. A further 1.5 million acres are closed to surface development, but underground development is accepted.

More important than these statistics, however, is the reality that oil companies have staked another claim in the Arctic tundra. With a foot in the door, it is easier for them to expand their operations to even more environmentally dangerous expeditions in the future. Further, nothing stops future environmentally-hostile governments from mincing the definitions of "essential" roads and pipelines. This concession to the oil industry leaves open the possibility they will pillage this land in the future.

Oil exploration is a risky business, where the possibility of a damaging leak or spill may always occur. Caribou and peregrine falcons, among other species, rely on the pristine Northern Arctic for their habitat. Even the small portion of coastline which may be subject to development puts at risk the ecosystem of the sea, and the fish, birds, and marine mammals which it sustains.

Of greater long-term concern than the potential for damage to the area's wildlife and its habitat, however, is the decision of the United States government to continue to pursue an energy policy based on oil. We all know fossil fuel reserves are limited, regardless of how many reserves we tap, given the voracious pace of energy consumption in this modern world. Furthermore, their byproducts are responsible for much of the world's air pollution problem. To develop another oil reserve makes no practical or environmental sense.

Interestingly, the world is currently awash in oil. Crude oil prices have plummeted on the world's commodities markets, and prices at the pump are among the lowest in recent memory. It is absolutely baffling to seek to add to the worldwide glut at this time.

Of course, political instability in the Middle East or the exhaustion of other deposits threaten to push up the prices of oil at any time. Even so, the decision to develop this reserve is fundamentally flawed. It is really only a stopgap to lengthen our domestic supply. It will not give us an unlimited supply of petroleum. Nor will it end our dependence on foreign oil. If the development of this National Petroleum Reserve were to give us an unlimited domestic supply, there would be some merit to its exploration and development. As it will not, there is little to be gained from its use.

The United States, and the rest of the world, needs a much more balanced energy policy for the next century. While fossil fuels can continue to play a role in providing fuel and electricity to the world, their use must be dramatically lessened. Energy companies and governments should be using their time and resources now to invest in cleaner, renewable sources of energy.

A nation such as the United States has the potential to be self-sufficient in terms of energy production by using clean methods of production. The large swaths of desert covering the southwestern quadrant of our nation could be turned into a solar power farm. The rough seas and tides of the Pacific Northwest and New England shores could also be harnessed for energy. Volcanoes and geysers found in the West may offer promise for future geothermal energy production there. The flat plains of our Midwest could be an ideal setting for wind-generated power stations.

While we can now produce energy through these technologies, they are largely not yet cost-feasible. Fossil fuels are still cheaper, and a profit-conscious industry thus chooses them over adequate investment in and exploration of new energy resources.

One holds little hope that multinational corporations will truly explore these new methods until the cost of fossil fuels becomes prohibitive. Therefore, one must turn to the government to support and carry out this important research. The decision to open the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, however, is a very disappointing action from the administration. This government should have more foresight and be showing much more support for renewable energy technologies.

As the West continues its consumption of fossil fuels and the world's developing nations see their demand for power rise exponentially, the entire world will need to lessen its dependence on fossil fuels and find new, less polluting technologies. The Interior Department's decision to develop oil reserves in Alaska will only discourage us from confronting the critical energy policy decisions so important to the world in the next century.