My Turn: Develop our own oil reserves now

Posted: Monday, May 05, 2003

As Congress continues to debate whether to permit some limited oil development on Alaska's Arctic coastal plain, we must ask whether America is doing everything it can to protect its energy security in the future.

As a new senator from Alaska, I may shock some by acknowledging some hard truths. First, this nation needs to do a far better job of energy conservation and needs to develop innovative energy technologies to meet our growing need for clean and efficient fuels.

For example, overcoming the technical hurdles of hydrogen-powered vehicles could be very beneficial in meeting our future energy needs. Second, opening a tiny part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by itself will not solve all our energy woes as it will take time to develop the area's potential. But ignoring the area's huge energy potential equates to hoping that foreign sources will supply our winter heating oil and summer gasoline needs at reasonable prices into the distant future. That's like students avoiding studying for finals in hopes that a snowstorm will force schools to close in May.

It also ignores the limitations of the refining process for crude oil and the growth in demand for aviation fuel, diesel, plastics and other items made from oil. The truth, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, is that there's a 50-50 chance the Arctic coastal plain holds about 10 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil - enough to produce about 1 million barrels a day for 30 years.

Rather than some inconsequential amount, such a find would be the largest oil field discovered in the world in the last three decades and would equal nearly one-fifth of America's likely domestic production by 2010.

Equally important, at current prices, it represents $15 billion a year that we won't have to spend on buying oil overseas, in some cases enriching dictators who wish us ill. Producing more energy at home would strengthen our economy by producing jobs and tax revenues here. It would foster our national security in the mid-term by lessening the potential for America to be subject to blackmail from foreign oil boycotts.

And allowing more oil development in Alaska would honor the promises Congress thrice made to my state, first at our statehood, later in 1960 when President Eisenhower created the Arctic Wildlife Range and in 1980 when 131 million acres of Alaska was withdrawn as parks and refuges. Each decision specifically permitted oil development to take place on the coastal plain, unless such development would harm Alaska's environment. And the truth is that tapping into a tiny percentage of ANWR's vast acreage won't.

According to the recent environmental impact statement for reauthorization of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline, less than 1 percent of the vegetation of the Arctic coastal plain likely will be impacted by future oil development. Safeguards in congressional legislation will guarantee no more than 2,000 acres of the 40 million acres of coastal plain will be touched.

Directional drilling underground allows oil wells to be placed up to seven miles apart, preventing disturbance to the animals that breed and graze in between. New procedures on seismic work prevent ocean noise when bowhead whales are passing.

Some worry about the impacts on calving caribou. But Alaska's experience at the nearby Prudhoe Bay oil field, where the caribou herd has grown sixfold, shows that caribou can not only tolerate but flourish in oil fields. That is especially the case since restrictions will prevent any drilling noise during the two months when the caribou might be present.

Developing oil domestically actually is good for the global environment since it reduces the importation of oil on foreign-flagged, single-hulled tankers, requiring the oil industry to meet America's stringent environmental safeguards.

Alaska's beauty certainly is not threatened as 192 million acres of Alaska remain protected - nearly the size of all East Coast states combined. America needs to both conserve and produce more energy.

If we can, as some have argued, reduce our foreign reliance on oil by 1 million barrels per day by increased conservation, and also increase production from ANWR by adding a million barrels, the 2 million barrels resulting from this two-pronged approach would substantially improve U.S. energy policy.

The government predicts that U.S. oil production will continue its steady decline unless we act now. By 2015 America will be producing just 30 percent of the oil we consume daily. We've wasted a quarter century on this debate. Let's help ourselves by developing our own oil reserves now.

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