The Case Against Oil Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
I am a citizen of the United States, and I am opposed to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). I cannot know the minds of American leaders, but I believe that oil is the lodestone of deception. Confessed amateur that I am, I write here solely in an appeal to fellow citizens. The question of whether to drill in ANWR has implications so vast as to preclude the necessity of specialized understanding.
The Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries was formed in 1968 in order to cement a financial umbrella over Arab concerns. Its parent body is the more familiar Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. During the 1970s, socialization of oil production in Arab oil exporting states brought crisis to and purchased condemnation from oil importing states. It is the sense that such exercise of sovereignty exists solely to avenge colonial oppression that continues to drive American policy on energy and on the Middle East.
Oil is fungible, meaning that its origin is often obscured in transit. Oil distribution is a complicated version of three-card monte, with huge volumes of crude oil and petroleum products being traded at depots and refineries and on the high seas. Knowing this, in 1995, United States legislators began to doubt the validity of the 1973 ban on export of Alaska crude and amendments to the ban.
The ban was implemented ostensibly for national security reasons. The ban was strengthened and maintained by amendment; this was due primarily to lobbying from the domestic maritime industry, which was involved in shipping crude oil up and down the western coast of North America. Problems of oversupply arose. Alaska and California crudes were found to be heavy, and West Coast refineries' operations needed supplementation with lighter, less sulfurous imported oil, such as that from Saudi Arabia. The imports plus the domestics combined to create an excess of oil west of the Rocky Mountains, an area called PAD District V or PADD V. Some crude oil then had to be transported to Gulf of Mexico refineries. There was and is no pipeline system between California and Texas.
The cost of shipping a barrel of oil down the Pacific Coast to Panama, through a pipeline to the Atlantic Coast, and northwards to the Gulf Coast was five dollars. Refineries in Japan, China, and South Korea were willing to offer the same price as those on the Gulf Coast, and shipping costs would be only 50 cents per barrel. Extra importation could easily replace the Alaska crude not reaching the Gulf, West Coast producers would have an outlet to prevent depression of prices, and the domestic maritime industry could be comforted by a promise to require that trans-Pacific oil exportation involve American merchant flagships. The Congress and the Senate passed and President Clinton signed the bill that revoked the ban. Since then about 100,000 barrels per day have been going from Valdez to northeastern Asia.
Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute highlights what he sees as a key problem in United States' foreign policy. He writes, "The socio-economic trauma of the oil crisis still haunts the American psyche, so much so that politicians couldn't care less if our foreign policy is beginning to resemble the imperialist caricature of capitalism peddled by V. I. Lenin." While most oil importers wait for their oil to arrive dockside, the United States actively guards the supply lines--abstract and concrete--leading out of all important oil producing countries. Mr. Taylor is concerned that continued presence of American naval vessels in the Persian Gulf is pointless provocation. One might allow that Japan had returned to militaristic behavior and imagine what it would be like for Americans if she stationed a naval fleet in Puget Sound to protect her pulp wood interests.
The United States has vast reserves of coal and oil-bearing shale. "In comparison with the billions we spend on oil imports ... the millions the government is devoting to liquefaction of coal can best be described as a phony commitment--a cosmetic effort whose purpose is to give the appearance, not the reality, of action." This excerpt is from a Science editorial written in early 1973, just prior to the first big spike in the cost of oil. Little is the change. Since President Reagan was elected in 1980, the American government has done nigh on nothing to compel automobile manufacturers to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles or to promote research on and implementation of coal liquefaction technology. This might be benign if it were not for all of the rhetoric about energy independence. The only possible conclusion: The United States government never believed in domestic energy independence and considers the whole idea to be a political ruse that they must occasionally revive to placate what they consider to be a selfish and shallow citizenry more concerned about nickel increases on gasoline gallons than about proper maintenance of global infrastructure. One Cato expert referred to the idea of domestic energy independence as "Nonsense on stilts." Free marketeers know who works for them.
ANWR is about 19 million acres of some of the most pristine wilderness left in the world. It has a unique caribou run, with coastal mating grounds exactly above where the oil is. ANWR oil would, if developed, likely share the Trans-Alaska Pipeline with Prudhoe Bay and other North Slope crudes. Frank H. Murkowski, Republican Senator from Alaska, is Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He says, "Oil development in Alaska is done right." The senator sees no possibility of conflict between the flora and fauna in the refuge and potential oil works. Yet politicians' visions of oil drilling as an act of surgical precision are not based on physical models from this world. Typically, large-scale oil production in remote land areas is characterized by hundreds of miles of roads, pipelines, rail lines, and power lines and thousands of sludge ponds, worker's shacks, and discarded fuel drums. The question is not whether the ecosystem would be destroyed but for what.
We have established the falsity of energy independence. Indeed, ANWR oil would be exported. Nevertheless, exploitation of ANWR would create jobs and make a dent in the now ballooning trade deficit that the United States has with Japan, China, and South Korea. Yet, from John Bacher's Petrotyranny, we find that "Oil profits' aid to repression also makes them a principal cause of war." The United States risks becoming a Third World country: We have allowed our steel industries to be decimated by foreign competition, and now we have a president, George W. Bush, instructing us on that we ought to depend on raw materials for our survival.
There is another matter. Many perfectly good drilling sites have already been prepared in Alaska but are off-line. Over the last 20 years, the average international price of crude oil has often been below 15 dollars per barrel, which is baseline for operation on some of the less productive Alaskan wells. Nobody knows if ANWR has any "gushers." There is a very real chance that oil developers could thoroughly test-drill ANWR, find some oil but no easy opportunities for exploitation, leave a big mess, and plan to return at some indeterminate time in the future--like when all of the more profitable wells in the world have played out.
The current world economic system depends on the grace of Middle East leaders. The United States would do well by her citizens if she were to show more civility towards these leaders. Reducing dependence on crude oil is a worthy long-term goal for all countries, but destroying ANWR would only mask United States' unwillingness to accept her unavoidable vulnerability to the vagaries of international commerce. ANWR is deserving of World Heritage status. Democracy gives credence to individual self-interest, and there are many who would be glad to see more of our planet's great natural and artistic treasures protected from the dogs of war, the wheels of progress, and the misguided sympathies of realists.