My Turn: Cutting off the wrong feet

Posted: Sunday, November 11, 2001

Many years ago Sen. Ted Stevens declared (Anchorage Times, May 16, 1977) that running a pipeline across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would be akin to slicing a razor blade across the Mona Lisa. Just a few days ago Sen. Stevens stated that drilling for oil in the refuge is now a matter of national security. It's good that people can change their minds. I only hope the senator will change his again.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have been compared to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. How did folks respond to that crisis? During World War II Americans practiced conservation, gasoline rationing and recycling. Farmers grew corn for ethanol and hemp for victory. We learned to do more with less, and it was a sign of our strength.

The response by the Bush administration, Sen. Stevens and many other citizens to the current energy "crisis" seems juvenile by comparison. We seem frightened by the idea of conservation, energy efficiency and alternative energies, yet we complain about being held hostage to foreign oil interests and even assert that we are somehow "forced" to import oil from Saddam Hussein's Iraq. (We don't like to mention that Saddam and Osama bin Laden are former allies of our oil-based foreign policy.) All this hand wringing, and yet the only thing holding us hostage is ourselves.

Since WWII the only time America has actually decreased dependence on foreign oil was between 1977 and 1984, as a result of increased fuel efficiency. But the Reagan administration rolled back efficiency requirements and our addiction blossomed anew.

Here's how minds can change from one president to the next. After WWII, Truman's administration talked about solar energy as a national priority. Under Eisenhower, the "firecracker boys" took over and pushed atomic energy instead. Jimmy Carter put solar panels up on the White House roof, and Ronald Reagan took them down. Bush the Elder and Bush the Younger are oil men.

It's a no-brainer that much of the energy needs of the American Sun Belt can be met through solar technology. And terrorists can't bomb the sun like they can pipelines or power plants. Also, a return to increased fuel efficiency in our automobiles means we easily save enough energy every year to forget about our "need" to drill in the Arctic, or import from Saddam. It is shameful that America's energy policy has been based on plundering our pristine wild places and working with terrorists.

The oil industry plays Alaska like a fiddle. Only a few years ago they successfully lobbied to allow our oil to be exported abroad, no matter we were simultaneously importing from Iraq. The industry's fidelity, by law, is not to their workers, or the citizens of Alaska, or even to the United States, but first and foremost to their shareholders. The industry is not here to encourage conservation or fuel efficiency, but to sell oil.

Frankly, we may not be able to expect objectivity about oil addiction from a state that gets three-quarters of its income from it. Nevertheless, oil tankers and the aging pipeline have not been kind to Alaska's fabled environment. And when it comes to energy security, the pipeline can clearly be shut down by a single bullet hole.

When we consider scarring the Mona Lisa in order to get our next fix, when we consider trampling the human rights of the Gwich'in people and the animal rights of caribou mothers, when we seek to turn a place of refuge into an industrial waste site, when we seek to exploit a wilderness that is literally and symbolically of global significance, it is a sign of our weakness, not our strength.

Bless this great nation. In our addiction, we sometimes seem like a wolf trying to chew off every leg but the one in the trap. May we seize this opportunity to grow up and kick the habit.

David Grimes is a musician, wilderness guide and former commercial fisherman from Cordova in Prince William Sound.

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