Right about now in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, dozens of pregnant female polar bears are preparing to give birth in dens they dug into the snowdrifts last month, unaware that the fate of their home, and possibly their species, hinges on the price of gasoline. The Obama administration can and should change that.
Big Oil and its congressional allies have been mounting attempts to open the refuge to oil and gas development since the 1970s. There is no immediate danger that they'll succeed. Although the GOP electoral landslide this month ended Democratic control of the House and produced an incoming class of congressional freshman who are ardently pro-drilling, the Senate is still controlled by Democrats who oppose opening the refuge. More important, gas prices have been stable for more than a year. But should they spike — which is likely to happen if the economy significantly improves — the false perception that we could drill our way out of the problem would increase public support for opening the refuge, pressuring centrist Democrats to change their stance.
This is why half the members of the Senate (all of them Democrats except Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut) sent a letter to President Obama last week urging him to grant the "strongest possible" federal protection to the refuge, thus ending the perennial battles over drilling. Several environmental groups have joined in, urging Obama to designate the land as a national monument, which would prohibit most forms of development.
The refuge is a diverse and extremely fragile ecosystem that teems with animals, such as the Porcupine caribou and muskoxen, that would be seriously harmed by drilling activities. It is thought to be the most important onshore denning habitat for polar bears, a threatened species, in the United States. Oil development would bring road and pipeline construction, noise and pollution, and spills would be deadly to local wildlife. And drilling would have little impact on oil prices. The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that output from the refuge could reduce the world oil price by just 75 cents a barrel in 2025 (crude is currently trading at about $81 a barrel, and such a small decrease would be next to meaningless at the pump). Moreover, OPEC would be able to wipe out any savings simply by restricting its supplies. Oil companies would certainly profit from the opportunity to drill, but consumers probably would not.
A monument designation by Obama would most likely lead to a legal battle, because it's not clear whether federal lands available for state use in Alaska can be withdrawn without congressional approval. But that's a fight well worth having. The refuge is a threatened treasure that must be guarded.