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Misspent Alaska Crusade

April 15, 2002

The Bush administration has found a new excuse for exploring and drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge--Saddam Hussein's cutoff of oil exports. But this argument is just as weak as all that came before. Even the White House acknowledged Thursday that the Iraqi cutoff had not affected the oil market. ''The point is why take the risk?'' Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said. The response should be: Why undertake the systematic industrialization of one of the nation's premier wilderness areas for a marginal amount of oil?

The president is determined to open the refuge even though the oil companies themselves show little enthusiasm for poking around the tundra for an estimated 3.2 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil, about what this nation consumes in six months.

To allow the search for and possible production of oil in the Alaska refuge, Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska) is expected soon to propose an amendment to energy legislation now before the Senate. Hussein has stopped oil exports from Iraq for at least a month or until Israel withdraws its forces from the West Bank. But the oil we get from Iraq amounts to only about 3% of U.S. supply. The far greater flow of oil from Venezuela was interrupted by a recently ended oil workers strike, with no great outcry.

The loss of those imports has had little impact on oil markets, administration officials acknowledge. Saudi Arabia and others are expected to make up for the loss, and the Alaskan oil, which would take years to get to market, could hardly ease any need soon.

Fleisher's question about "why take the risk?" would be better applied to drilling in the Arctic wilderness. Other hard questions include: Why deliberately risk a unique natural environment when the oil companies can develop greater oil supplies at far less cost elsewhere in the world? Why mock the notion that exploration and drilling would disturb the caribou? Why outrageously exaggerate the potential economic benefits of the Alaska petroleum? Why keep peddling the myth that oil production would not harm the Arctic environment?

President Bush has made drilling in the refuge something of a political holy war. He is spending political capital that he will need later and should weigh the cost.

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