Bush makes a slip on Arctic oil policy

Posted: Wednesday, October 11, 2000

The following editorial appeared in Tuesday's Chicago Tribune:

Oil and politics should not mix, and presidential candidate George W. Bush's proposal to drill in a pristine Alaskan wilderness is a prime example of why not.

Bush has criticized Al Gore's straw-brained support for tapping into the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a move designed to shave a few pennies off of home heating costs and gas pump prices just in time for Election Day.

But Bush says he would allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a 19-million-acre site that has been under federal protection since 1980.

That would be a mistake.

Petroleum companies have been itching for the chance to scratch up the tundra. It was once the centerpiece of President Ronald Reagan's energy policy, and later that of President George Bush. Their argument was that the oil available in the refuge would stem U.S. reliance on foreign imports.

An increase in domestic production would have some impact on price and supply. Yet drilling in the fragile ecosystem of the Arctic refuge would produce too little oil to make a marked difference in U.S. reliance on imports. The 3.2 billion barrels the U.S. Geological Survey estimates are in the refuge area would fill about six months of U.S. consumption. And any benefit would not be realized for quite some time. It takes 10 years for a field to produce meaningful amounts of crude oil.

Nor is there any guarantee that the U.S. wouldn't simply lap up the new fuel without making a dent in the nation's reliance on oil. Some 95 percent of Alaska's North Slope was opened for oil exploration 24 years ago, yet demand for foreign oil remains high. There's little reason to expect that digging into the preserved 5 percent would make a perceivable difference.

Bush hit a nerve when he said the Clinton administration has not come up with a comprehensive energy policy. And many of Bush's other energy proposals $1 billion more in energy aid for low-income households, $1.4 billion to help utilities produce electricity from renewable fuels, billions more for alternative fuels would soften the immediate blow of high prices and encourage a long-term move away from oil.

His drive to find ways to reduce the national addiction to oil hits on the only real alternative. Just leave the Arctic refuge out of the mix.

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