Alaska editorial: Don't count ANWR cash before it's time

Posted: Wednesday, February 16, 2005

This editorial appeared in the Feb. 9 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

Ah, Alaskans can see the extra money now and are probably dreaming up ways to spend it. About $1.2 billion would be in Alaska's pocket in 2007 if Congress goes along with President Bush's budget and finds a way to allow oil production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And millions more would come in later years from royalties as ANWR's oil tumbles through the 48-inch trans-Alaska oil pipeline from beneath a portion of the refuge's coastal plain.

Both occurrences still have a few "ifs" to contend with, however, so it would behoove Alaskans to not get too excited just yet.

First, opening the refuge is likely to face a stiff challenge from environmental groups, who have made ANWR a poster child for everything they see wrong with policies, primarily of Republican origin, that might affect the environment. The ability of these groups to tie up any ANWR development, through the environmental review process and even through corporate shareholder petitions within the oil companies, should not be underestimated.

And while Alaska may indeed receive a substantial sum in lease payments, just how much the state would receive in royalties once the oil is flowing itself is contingent on an "if" - as in "if the oil is there in sufficient quantity to make it economically recoverable."

Also, it's been reported that oil industry interest is tepid - at least publicly - about going into ANWR. The major oil companies have been publicly quiet throughout much of the congressional effort to open the refuge, and two - ConocoPhillips and BP - have withdrawn from the pro-drilling lobby group Arctic Power, though the companies have not indicated they would avoid buying leases in the refuge. But if they are considering moving into ANWR, they will almost certainly be the targets of drilling opponents.

On the up side, the reality now in Congress, where the ANWR battle has been fought for more than a decade, is that the new political lineup has changed the question of opening the refuge from one of "a big if" to one of "when." And that, despite the hurdles that remain, is why Alaskans probably will, even though they shouldn't at this moment, fantasize about the dollar signs to come.

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