Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Refuge At Risk

To its everlasting shame, the U.S. Congress appears poised to allow oil drilling in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in northeast Alaska. With control of the White House, the House of Representatives, and the Senate, Republicans now have their best chance in twenty years to open the refuge to development.

Republican leaders deftly skirted their biggest obstacle in the Senate by inserting the development provision directly into the federal budget. Senate rules prohibit filibustering budget bills, so only a simple majority is necessary for passage. Were the ANWR (pronounced an-war) provision to stand on its own as a separate bill, it would have required a more problematic sixty cloture votes.

Will this slick maneuver be sufficient to at last get oil development underway in ANWR? Maybe not. House and Senate Republicans are at loggerheads over the level of Medicaid spending in the new budget. If they can't come to an agreement on Medicaid, then passage of the overall budget bill is threatened. No budget, no ANWR. Still, it looks increasingly likely that Republicans will reach their long sought goal of developing the refuge.

Besides corrupting a spectacularly pristine ecosystem, what will oil development achieve? Not much. Proponents clamor about lessening America's dependence on foreign oil, and stabilizing rising oil prices. Neither of those outcomes is possible. Remember: oil is a global commodity; its price is set by the interaction of global supply and global demand. It makes not a whit of difference where it is produced. In a time of scarcity, price is all that matters. He who pays the most will secure the resource. And make no mistake: we have already entered a period of permanent scarcity. From now to the end of time, it is a seller's market.

Won't introducing ANWR oil into the markets help alleviate the supply shortage? Not enough to matter. With exploration yet to be done and no infrastructure presently in place, we're still years away from pumping any ANWR oil. And once ANWR comes online, its output relative to the size of the global oil market will be negligible. The stark truth is that the oil demand and supply curves have already begun to diverge, and with each passing year the situation becomes more dire. Worldwide, oil producers are already at or near maximum aggregate production capacity. And with China's explosive economic growth fueling ever rising demand, the divergence between supply and demand keeps getting wider. This will not change. Fifty-five dollar a barrel oil will seem cheap compared to what will be the norm in the next few years. The real question that needs to be answered is not should we develop ANWR, but why aren't we investing in sustainable energy technologies?

In any case, there's no good way to get ANWR oil to America's gulf coast refineries where it is needed. In reality, ANWR oil is destined for Asia, which for purposes of shipping oil is more conveniently located relative to Alaska than is much of the United States. Not that it much matters: as a global commodity, Saudi oil is as good as Alaskan oil. Still, there's something unseemly about the notion of despoiling one of the last great wild places on earth so that multinational energy companies can produce Alaskan oil for consumption in China.

Despoiling? That's not what the developers call it. Proponents of ANWR drilling make all kinds of promises about how environmentally sensitive their operations will be. They tell us that the total footprint of their ANWR operations will be a mere 2000 acres, and invariably point out that this is a miniscule area compared to the vast size of the refuge. What the developers don't say is that a substantial amount of ANWR consists of the crags and peaks of the Brooks Range which are, relatively speaking, mostly rock and ice. The oil, unfortunately, is under the coastal plain--a smaller, more biologically rich, and therefore much more important part of the refuge.

It is to ANWR's coastal plain that the 120,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd makes its annual overland migration for the summer calving season. The spectacle of migrating caribou is the inspiration for ANWR being called "America's Serengeti". There are moose, wolves, grizzly bear, polar bear, arctic ground squirrel, arctic fox, musk-ox. To the coastal plain come millions of migratory birds from all over the planet: from Hawaii, South America, Asia, Africa, India. Arctic terns come from as far away as Antarctica. All come to rear their young in the highest quality intact arctic ecosystem in existence.

Apart from the obvious discordance of industrial infrastructure planted in a remote and heretofore untrammelled wilderness, development poses the possibility of great damage. The arctic is underlain by permafrost, and has a very short growing season. In this fragile land, scars take centuries to heal.

ANWR has no roads; some will have to be built. (Yes, we've heard about the winter-only "ice roads" which are gone by summer. But there will necessarily be local roads for year round use around each development site.) Gravel for roads and airstrips and drilling pads will have to be mined from now pristine local streams. There will be a network of oil pipelines crossing the plain. There will be human and industrial waste, and facilities to deal with it. The list goes on. Think heavy industry.

That we would even consider such development begs important questions about the soul of humanity, and the tentative answers are not encouraging. Will we, in the end, seek out and exploit every last drop of oil on the face of the earth, no matter how remote, and at any cost? Have we no sense of limit? No sense of shame? Is there any line we will not cross? Any time we will say enough? If we cannot leave in peace a place like ANWR, then there is truly no place so pure or so sacred that it will not be subsumed by our addiction to oil.

Regardless of whether we make wise choices or shortsighted ones, that addiction will run its course, and sooner than we want to believe. The earth's supply of oil is finite and diminishing; after a brief moment in time it will be gone. So once ANWR has been developed, exploited, and abandoned; once all that remains is scars and regret, will it have been worth it?

I say no.

Copyright (C) 2005 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved