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The same old drill

November 09, 2005

CONGRESS IS SUPPOSED TO BE crafting a budget bill to steer the country through five years of such formidable challenges as rebuilding New Orleans and fending off avian flu. Instead, it is throwing together a hodgepodge of notions that are good (a reduction in farm subsidies, though it doesn't go far enough), bad

(unconscionable cuts in food stamps and healthcare to families making the tough transition from welfare to work) and completely inappropriate.

In that last category are proposals to open up the East and West coasts to offshore oil drilling, as well as allow oil exploration and drilling in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. If those sound like they don't have much to do with federal spending, it's because they don't. And if they sound familiar, it's because they have been proposed before (and before and before) in energy legislation, and have rightfully fallen flat each time.

Unable to pass bad policy through regular legislation, those bent on allowing more drilling in the most environmentally sensitive spots have resorted to tucking it into the budget bill, which cannot be filibustered. The Senate last week passed its version, which includes Arctic but not offshore drilling. The House is scheduled to vote this week on a budget that includes both kinds of drilling. Both cynically use Hurricane Katrina as their excuse for despoiling areas where oil spills could cause extraordinary damage. Californians witnessed that damage with the 1969 Santa Barbara spill.

President Bush has been trying for five years to open the Alaskan wildlife refuge to drilling. His insistence despite repeated failure could be seen as admirable persistence or simply bullheaded attachment to a plan that has been misrepresented as offering maximum energy benefits to the United States at minimal environmental cost.

Last week, the president again lauded the energy value of the Arctic refuge, saying, "The most promising site for oil in America is a 2,000-acre site" there. There is no contiguous 2,000-acre site. If there were, the drilling proposals in the bill wouldn't need to allow, as they do, oil exploration over a 1.5-million-acre area. Within that area, about 2,000 acres would be allotted to oil production. But those acres would most likely be sprinkled throughout -- with roads, pipelines and other infrastructure carving up the landscape to connect those spots to each other and to Prudhoe Bay.

The oil would take eight to 10 years to reach market -- and the total amount generated is estimated to be enough to meet this nation's needs for only six months to a year. Moderate conservation steps would gain far more than that.

Fortunately, moderate Republicans as well as Democrats are rebelling against the most destructive provisions of the omnibus bill. But even if they're stripped out, we can expect to see the same proposals crop up next year ... and the year after that. Better to say farewell to bad ideas and move on.

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