The U.S. Senate budget bill would finally open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling. Environmentalists are shocked and outraged. “This battle is far from over,” they vowed.  

Indeed, the 51-49 margin underscores the ideological passion of drilling opponents, their party-line determination to block Bush Administration initiatives, the misinformation that still surrounds this issue, and a monumental double standard for environmental protection.

Many votes against drilling came from California and Northeastern senators who have made a career of railing against high energy prices, unemployment and balance of trade deficits – while simultaneously opposing oil and natural gas development in Alaska, the Outer Continental Shelf, western states and any other areas where petroleum might actually be found.  Drilling in other countries is OK in their book, as is buying crude from oil-rich dictators, sending American jobs and dollars overseas, reducing US royalty and tax revenues, imperiling industries that depend on petroleum, and destroying habitats to generate “ecologically friendly” wind power.

This political theater of the absurd is bad enough. But many union bosses also oppose drilling, and thus kill jobs for their members – the epitome of hypocrisy.

Government geologists say ANWR could hold up to 16 billion barrels of recoverable oil. That’s 30 years’ of imports from Saudi Arabia. Turned into gasoline, it would power California’s vehicle fleet for 50 years, and hybrid and fuel cell cars would stretch the oil even further. ANWR’s natural gas could fuel California’s electrical generating plants for years.

At $50 a barrel, ANWR could save the US from having to import $800 billion worth of foreign oil, create up to 700,000 American jobs, and generate hundreds of billions in royalties and taxes.

No matter, say environmentalists. They claim energy development would “irreparably destroy” the refuge. Caribou doo-doo.

ANWR is the size of South Carolina: 19 million acres. Of this, only 2,000 acres along the “coastal plain” would actually be disturbed by drilling and development. That’s 0.01% – one-twentieth of Washington, DC – 20 of the buildings Boeing uses to manufacture its 747 jets!

The potentially oil-rich area is a flat, treeless stretch of tundra, 3,500 miles from DC and 50 miles from the beautiful mountains seen in all the misleading anti-drilling photos. During eight months of winter, when drilling would take place, virtually no wildlife are present. No wonder. Winter temperatures drop as low as minus 40 F. The tundra turns rock solid. Spit, and your saliva freezes before it hits the ground.

But the nasty conditions mean drilling can be done with ice airstrips, roads and platforms. Come spring, they’d all melt, leaving only puddles and little holes. The caribou would return – just as they have for years at the nearby Prudhoe Bay and Alpine oil fields – and do just what they always have: eat, hang out and make babies. In fact, Prudhoe’s caribou herd has increased from 6,000 head in 1978 to 27,000 today. Arctic fox, geese, shore birds and other wildlife would also return, along with the Alaska state bird, Mosquito giganteus.

But the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, Alaska Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, and Natural Resources Defense Council still oppose ANWR development – even as they promote their favorite alternative to Arctic oil: wind energy. Electricity from wind is hardly a substitute for petroleum – especially for cars, trains, boats and planes. And swapping reliable, revenue-generating petroleum for intermittent, tax-subsidized wind power is a poor tradeoff.

On ecological grounds, wind power fails even more miserably.

A single 555-megawatt gas-fired power plant on 15 acres generates more electricity each year than do all 13,000 of California’s wind turbines – which dominate 106,000 acres of once-scenic hill country. They kill some 10,000 eagles, hawks, other birds and bats every year.

On West Virginia’s Backbone Mountain, 44 turbines killed numerous birds and 2,000 bats in 2003 – and promoters want many more towers along this major migratory route over the Allegheny Front. Bat Conservation International and local politicians are livid.

In Wisconsin, anti-oil groups support building 133 gigantic Cuisinarts on 32,000 acres (16 times the ANWR operations area) near Horicon Marsh. This magnificent wetland is home to millions of geese, ducks and other migratory birds, and just miles from an abandoned mine that houses 140,000 bats. At 390 feet in height, the turbines tower over the Statue of Liberty (305 feet), US capitol (287 feet) and Arctic oil production facilities (50 feet).

All these turbines would produce about as much power as Fairfax County, Virginia gets from one facility that burns garbage to generate electricity. But they’d likely crank out an amazing amount of goose liver paté.

In Maryland’s mountains, off the Cape Cod coast, amidst the tall grass prairie country of Kansas and elsewhere, the tradeoff is the same: thousands of flying mammals and tens of thousands of acres sacrificed to wind power, to “save” ANWR. Better yet, America could generate nearly 20% of its electricity from the wind, says the American Wind Energy Association, if it devoted just 1% of its land mass to these turbines. What’s 1% of the USA, you ask. It’s the state of Virginia: 23,000,000 acres.

The alternative to no wind energy and no Arctic oil is equally untenable: freeze jobless in the dark, or spend countless billions to import still more oil from the likes of Hugo Chavez and the mullahs of Iran.

The hypocrisy of this ecological double standard is palpable. So union bosses, greens and liberal politicians bring up the Gwich’in Indians, who claim drilling would “threaten their traditional lifestyle.”

Inuit Eskimos who live in ANWR support drilling by an 8:1 margin. They’re tired of living in poverty and using 5-gallon pails for toilets – after having given up their land claims for oil rights that Congress has repeatedly denied them.

The Gwich’ins live 150-250 miles away – and their reservations about drilling aren’t exactly carved in stone. Back in the 1980s, the Alaska Gwich’ins leased 1.8 million acres of their tribal lands for oil development. That’s more land than has been proposed for exploration in ANWR. (No oil was found.)

A couple years ago, Canada’s Gwich’ins announced plans to drill in their 1.4-million-acre land claims area. The proposed drill sites (and a potential pipeline route) are just east of a major migratory path, where caribou often birth their calves, before they arrive in ANWR.

Many therefore suspect that the Gwich’ins role as anti-oil poster children has a lot to do with the fact that they have received at least $630,000 from the Wilderness Society and a herd of liberal foundations. In exchange, they’ve placed full-page ads in major newspapers, appeared in television spots and testified on Capitol Hill in opposition to ANWR exploration – while pursuing their own drilling programs.

Alternative energy technologies are certainly coming. Just ponder how we traveled, heated our homes, communicated and manufactured things 100 years ago – versus today. But the change won’t happen overnight. Nor will it come via government mandates, or by throwing an anti-oil monkey wrench into our economy.

It shouldn’t come at the expense of habitats, scenery and wildlife, either. Anyone who cares about these things should support automotive R&D – and ANWR oil development.

Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for the Congress of Racial Equality and Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green power ● Black death,  

© 2005 Paul K. Driessen