Republicans who saw the November elections as a mandate for easing environmental laws are once again attempting to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. This time, with no meaningful political opposition, it’s quite likely that they will finally succeed. Americans interested in the kind of world their children will inherit should pay attention to what is taking place in the North Slope of Alaska. As House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, menacingly said in September 2003, this battle is less about oil than about “precedent.”
Congressmen who have been flown over ANWR in oil-company jets have stood before cameras owned by media conglomerates and told us that the North Slope is a wasteland atop an endless supply of oil. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The North Slope is home to polar and grizzly bears, wolverines, musk oxen, wolves, and the Porcupine caribou herd. The Gwich’in people have lived in symbiosis with this herd for at least 10,000 years. All the beauty and magnificence we associate with the Arctic is there, intact and in abundance.
Less impressive are the oil reserves under ANWR. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates there are 3.2 billion barrels of oil there. This sounds like a lot, but we Americans are consuming 7.1 billion barrels a year, and that number is expected to grow. At best, ANWR would provide a six-month supply of oil. ANWR is not even remotely a solution for our energy problems.
The Bush administration knows this. As DeLay said, this is about precedent. The interests who own the government see ANWR as a symbol of resistance to a neoconservative society. In this worldview, there is no reason for the existence of undisturbed wilderness, old-growth redwoods, family farms, or public schools. Everything is a commodity.
The only solution to our energy problems is conservation. Oil is a drug, and we Americans are addicts. We represent 4 percent of the world’s population, yet we consume 25 percent of the world’s oil production. In 1975 we imported 35 percent of our oil; we now purchase 54 percent from abroad, and unless we change our behavior, we will import 70 percent of our oil by 2025. We have become a tyrannical, militaristic nation largely because of our addiction to oil.
There is much we could do to reduce our dependence on oil. Increasing average fuel efficiency to 39 miles a gallon, something we have the ability to do now, would save 51 billion barrels of oil over the next 50 years. This is 15 times more oil than we could get from ANWR. Our current fuel-efficiency standards are 25 years old and were written before we evolved into a nation of SUV drivers. This administration has created loopholes exempting vehicles weighing more than 8,500 pounds (such as the Hummer H2) from any fuel-efficiency standards whatsoever, and efforts to fund solar- and wind-energy programs have been repeatedly rejected.
Under our current pro forma democracy, I am pessimistic that we can save ANWR and other national treasures from the auction block. Both political parties are owned by the petroleum-military complex and will do nothing to address the issues that face this nation. The only hope is an awakened, engaged American electorate. At the moment, it does not appear that the interests in power have anything to fear.