My Turn: Senate is next challenge to opening ANWR

Posted: Monday, August 06, 2001

Alaskans and the rest of the United States won when the House passed President Bush's energy bill. It allows oil exploration on 2,000 acres of the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain of the 19 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. The other 99.9998946 percent of ANWR remains untouched for Club Sierra and other wildlife.

The vote on the total energy bill wasn't even close at 240-189. But a move to strip the ANWR authorization out of the bill was defeated only 223-206. That is close. It brings to mind the congressional approval for the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. It passed Congress only after Vice President Spiro Agnew broke a tie in the Senate almost 30 years ago.

To get the energy bill through the Senate with the ANWR authorization will be every bit as difficult as gaining approval of the oil pipeline. Where would the United States be if the pipeline, that now carries 11 percent of the nation's daily consumption of petroleum, was never built? At one time, before oil production began dropping at Prudhoe Bay, the pipeline carried 20 percent of daily U.S. consumption. ANWR oil could boost us back to 20 percent.

With the drop in Alaska production, the United State now imports almost 60 percent of the oil it uses daily. For that 60 percent, the United States is at the mercy of politics and conflicts in the Middle East. We fought the Gulf War 10 years ago to protect our oil supply. We currently burn petroleum flying patrols around Iraq to prevent Saddam Hussein from again threatening our energy supply and economy.

It makes more sense to develop domestic energy resources, such as ANWR, than burn oil to police the world.

Another area in Alaska that can supply a lot of energy to the United States, and keep us safe from foreign machinations, is the National Petroleum Reserve (once known as Naval Petroleum Reserve 4) on the Arctic Coast to the west of Prudhoe Bay. ANWR is to the east.

A small area of the national reserve has been opened to oil exploration. However, the bulk of its energy is its coal. According to the Alaska Almanac, Alaska holds 50 percent of the total coal reserves of the United States and 80 percent of that coal is located in the national reserve.

Alaska coal has the advantage of being low in sulfur. The University of Alaska and others are working on technology to extract energy from coal in a cleaner manner. The day may come when coal energy is converted to electricity on the North Slope and transmitted to population centers.

Alaska's energy first became a national issue when President Teddy Roosevelt locked up all Alaska coal deposits in 1906, a lockup that lasted for 10 years. The reserve area on the Arctic Coast was retained as a reserve for the Navy, which then used coal more than oil to power the fleet. Roosevelt's lockup was supposedly to block the Morgan-Guggenheim syndicate from staking all of the reserves while they were developing copper claims near Cordova, although there was no indication that was occurring.

The lockup was unpopular among Alaskans, many of whom lost their claims and filing fees. Cordova residents threw a shipment of imported Canadian coal off a dock in protest. Gifford Pinchot, President Teddy Roosevelt's ardent conservationist and Forest Service founder, was burned in effigy at Katalla. He had refused residents' pleas to mine coal for local use after the president's lockup terminated jobs.

Another reason for the lockup, according to newspapers at the time, was to protect East Coast coal producers who were supplying the Navy. Pinchot was accused of promoting the lockup to protect his interest in an East Coast company, Pocahontas Coal. There may have been some truth to that because after Pinchot later investigated Alaska coal deposits for President Taft, he concluded: "Alaska coal is less likely to dominate the Pacific Coast market than had been thought when the fields were first discovered."

Alaskans must mount a campaign as intense as that used to win statehood, win pipeline approval or defeat Rep. Morris Udall's HR 39 land lockup in order to open ANWR's 2,000 acres.

The Teamsters' Union, represented by Anchorage Local 959 executive Jerry Hood, was credited by House Whip Tom Delay, R-Texas, for leading the successful lobby effort in the House for ANWR. It will take more than that effort and a letter from Gov. Tony Knowles to get ANWR through the Senate in September.

Williams is retired publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News and a former member of the University of Alaska Board of Regents.

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