For many Americans the question of whether to permit oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is answered in its name. It's a wildlife refuge, right?
But are we confronting an environmental issue on which all reasonable people not in the hire of "big oil" must agree? Is the case against the drilling irrefutable? The answer is a resounding no.
The ANWR is more symbol than substance and, like all symbols, its power comes more from its ability to resonate on a superficial level with the American voter than from its inherent logic. Like other symbols, it is in need of exposure to the facts:
* The area proposed for drilling is relatively small. The entire ANWR is only 5% (19 million acres) of Alaska's 394 million acres. Oil exploration is proposed for only the "1002 area" in the ANWR, which contains 1.5 million acres--less than 8% of the ANWR and 0.4% of all of Alaska.
If Alaska were a football field, the 1002 area would be an 12-inch strip from one sideline to the other. The area to be directly affected by drilling and placement of facilities would be about the size of a stadium cushion.
* The environment is not threatened. In 1987, a study ordered by the secretary of the Interior to analyze possible oil and gas reserves and assess the impact of drilling on wildlife concluded that the effect on the coastal plains environment would be minor and recommended the leasing of the ANWR 1002 area.
The major concern of many environmental groups is the Porcupine caribou herd. But in the Prudhoe Bay oil field, developed over a decade ago and larger and more intrusive than anything planned for the ANWR, the caribou are prospering; even detractors admit that the herd has more than doubled since that field was developed.
Neither has evidence of substantial negative impact on bird life or other species been produced. Modern drilling techniques result in a much reduced "footprint," and the federal authorities have the power to insist on the most stringent standards.
* The amount of oil and gas sought is significant. The estimates made by different agencies over the last two decades range widely and provide the basis for some confusion. Recently the Department of Energy stated that the mean recoverable estimate is 10.3 billion barrels. Of course, even with the most expensive and elaborate geophysical techniques, no one ever knows how much, if any, oil will be found.
Opponents of the drilling like to cite much smaller figures. The higher estimates of the petroleum industry are more convincing. It is their money. This 10.3 billion barrels of oil could displace the imports of Saudi Arabia for 20 years or reduce reliance on the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries by 1 million barrels per day, thus driving down the price for almost 30 years.
* Oil not produced in the 1002 area will have to be produced elsewhere. We seem enthusiastic about discoveries in the Caspian Sea, where almost every barrel must make the tortuous trip by tanker through the Bosporus.
We are gratified by the production that Britain has obtained in the North Sea, where 40-foot seas make it one of the most hazardous production areas in the world.
Rigs are working in the Gulf of Mexico within miles of Texas beaches and in the coastal waters off South America and Australia.
Are opponents of drilling in the ANWR saying that it is better to drill for oil in the pristine jungles of South America or the blue waters off Trinidad and tanker it to the U.S. than to drill in the mosquito-rich tundra of northern Alaska?
Preventing drilling in an area most Americans will never see or visit while welcoming it virtually everywhere else in the world is American arrogance.
* Alaskans support the drilling. Polls show that 75% of the Alaskan people favor drilling in the 1002 area. The leading proponent of the drilling is Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska). Likewise, the governor supports the drilling as do both houses of the Alaskan Legislature and the state's sole congressman. To be sure, the residents of Alaska are, through the profit-sharing system unique to that state, direct financial beneficiaries of the oil to be produced.
These are the people who know the state, can assess the risks and view the matter realistically. They know that the winters in the ANWR average minus 4 degrees and that, even if you have a bush pilot to fly you there, it is not a place to picnic in the summer because of the most prevalent form of wildlife: insects.
If it is our premise that the ANWR is priceless and that the drilling will destroy it, then the argument is over before it begins. But thoughtful supporters of the environment should ask themselves whether this indulgence in exaggeration and symbolism is good policy.