EVEN BY THE STANDARDS of Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, whose shameless pursuit of pork has been matched only by his underhanded efforts to sneak a measure allowing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge past an unwilling Congress, attaching the drilling provisions to the defense appropriations bill is a spectacularly cynical ploy.
Stevens' strategy is to force his colleagues to approve the drilling in order to avoid holding up a bill that gets needed money and materiel to the troops in Iraq. Nobody in Congress should buy that. The money will get to Iraq; the Bush administration will see to that.
"Oil is related to national security," declared the 82-year-old Stevens in justifying his move. He has crusaded for drilling in the preserve for half a century and carries tremendous clout in Congress, but he may have overreached this time.
Oil drilling in Alaska is not a national security issue. Estimates suggest that there is only enough oil in the refuge to fuel the nation for six months. It may take eight to 10 years to get the oil to the Lower 48. There's no certainty that the oil is worth the cost of pumping it at existing prices. Several major companies have quietly dropped out of a consortium that lobbied to drill in the reserve, known to environmentalists as America's Serengeti because of its teeming animal life. It seems that Stevens and President Bush are more interested in exploring the Arctic plain than the oil companies.
This is a personal crusade of Stevens', joined by Bush almost from the day he took office. Bush's passion to drill on the pristine slope is inexplicable. At times it seems to acquire the passion of a vendetta against environmentalists, ignoring the fact that preserving the Arctic refuge has broad support among the public.
Those who favor drilling claim that only a small part of the reserve will feel the effects of exploration and drilling. That's grossly misleading. If oil is found, there must be maintenance roads, collection pipelines that bring the oil from individual wells and transfer it to a central processing plant, and a pipeline across the plain to link up with Prudhoe Bay.
Drilling proponents also scoff that only a tiny fraction of Americans will ever see the wildlife refuge. That's not the issue. Americans take comfort and pleasure in knowing it is there, that something rare can be spared the ravages of development.
Members of Congress should not worry about the threats and warnings over Stevens' drilling ploy and should recall the 1862 declaration of Henry David Thoreau: "In wildness is the preservation of the world."