My Turn: Drilling in ANWR: Do the numbers add up?

Posted: Wednesday, August 22, 2001

I want to carve the fluff off the debate over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I want to skin the issue down to its bones. Let's start by tossing aside the conflicting scientific reports about the effects of drilling on caribou and polar bears. Let's ignore the rhetoric about new and improved drilling technologies. Let's burn the greenies' pamphlets and BP's slick, full-page ads. Let's even ignore the human rights issues of the Gwichin people losing their way of life.

Now that the table is clear let's dig out a calculator, sharpen a pencil, scrounge up a fresh sheet of paper. Numbers. Simple arithmetic. Basic hard-to-argue-with stuff. Now consider a nonrenewable resource (say oil) and let's run the numbers on how long it will be around. For a starting point let's assume (as some have predicted) that the planet's supply of oil will last another 100 years given our current rate of consumption. Here's where the math gets tricky because our rate of consumption is not static. In reality our consumption rate is going up by about 5 percent a year. Thinking back to the junior high lesson about compound interest we can figure that the hundred-year supply will only last 36 years.

Let's assume the hundred-year prediction is pure propaganda from the environmental wackos and there is really a 1,000-year supply of oil. Crunch the numbers (remember that pesky 5 percent increase in our rate of consumption) and we'll burn the last drop in a mere 79 years. Now that the calculator is warmed up let's keep plugging away. How about a 10,000-year supply? (Even Murk-owski, at his most zealous, has never suggested there is that much black gold on the planet). Our rate of consumption will gobble that up in a quick 125 years. But don't trust me. Dust off your calculator and check it out for yourself.

Simple math, yet, as always, difficult to interpret. To me the numbers clearly show the hubris of our current path. If we keep up with the status quo my grandchildren will witness the greed-inflamed battles over the last drops of fossil fuel.

Alaska's congressional delegation speaks of decreasing our dependence on foreign oil but ignores the reality that we cannot afford to continue burning fossil fuels at our current rate regardless of the country of origin. Carbon dioxide emissions are heating up the planet. Alaska's permafrost is melting. The ice sheet is thinning. Global weather patterns are shifting. Conservation has become an imperative, not a passing fad. If wisdom were to prevail over political and personal profit, the recent vote in the House of Representatives would have had a different outcome. Instead, the House passed an energy policy that calls for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The policy perpetuates the status quo of increasing consumption, something our president calls an American tradition. In support of the policy the teamsters speak of jobs and Gov. Knowles speaks of revenue.

The simple numbers speak a different story. The numbers speak to the short-sightedness of an energy policy centered on ever-increasing consumption. The numbers add up to the need for an cleaner form of energy and, more importantly, the need for conservation. The math is not that hard. I don't understand why our governor and our delegation have not already run the numbers. Maybe they are too busy trying to appease campaign contributors to find the time. Maybe they all misplaced their adding machines. Maybe we should pass the hat and buy for our political representatives new calculators (solar powered, of course).

Hank Lentfer is a freelance writer living in Gustavus.


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