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Snow Job on Arctic Drilling

October 01, 2002

Saddam Hussein does not shiver with dread at the thought of oil drills burrowing into the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. Some Republican senators apparently hope Americans are simple-minded enough to believe that tapping this off-limits source of Alaska oil would bolster the administration's threatened war on Iraq. But it's not true.

If drillers found the oil that's probably puddled beneath this delicate ecosystem, it would take oil companies eight to 10 years to get it to refineries. Even then, these relatively modest deposits would have a negligible impact on U.S. imports from the Middle East, experts say. The petroleum industry is likely to find far more oil in other parts of the world than they would get from the Arctic, and far sooner.

If the United States really wanted to make the world's oil suppliers nervous, it would require cars and light trucks to get better gas mileage. The current standard, an average of 27.5 miles per gallon, was adopted in 1986, but the actual fuel efficiency for all vehicles has declined to 24.6 miles per gallon since then.

When the Senate took up Bush's energy plan this year, it defeated efforts to approve tougher mileage rules on the claim that auto makers would have to stop producing big sport utility vehicles, putting mothers and children at risk in puny lightweight vehicles--again, the Americans-are-simpletons strategy.

This week, Bush's passion to drill in the Arctic rides piggyback on his energy bill toward a critical crossroads.

The 17 Senate members of the conference committee appointed to work out differences in the Senate and House versions of the bill are expected to vote today on whether to include a go-ahead to drill in Alaska's delicate reserve in the final measure. The Senate rejected Arctic drilling. The House voted for it, and last week House conference committee members upheld that position.

There are nine Democrats and eight Republicans on the Senate conference committee. Usually members uphold positions already adopted by the full house.

There's a chance that won't happen in the Senate committee. Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), an early drilling advocate, is the pivotal vote. We encourage him to uphold the decision of the Senate majority to protect Alaska's unique habitat for elk, polar bears, musk ox and snow geese.

The bill, which dodges responsible conservation measures such as gas mileage restrictions while handing dubious subsidies to the oil industry, is bad enough as it is. The nation would be better off without any energy bill if the Senate committee allows Bush's backers to slide through, on a war-fever gambit, potentially disastrous drilling in the wildlife refuge.

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