Monday, September 29, 2003

Endangered in the Arctic
Boston Globe Editorial, September 29, 2003

BY THE END of this week, Republican leaders in Congress hope to have agreement on an energy bill that both houses can vote on. The latest draft includes approval for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. If the bill comes to the Senate with that provision, opponents of destroying one of the nation's last great wilderness areas should filibuster if necessary to block it. Since the rest of the bill is likely to have far more favors for the oil, gas, and coal industries than for renewables or energy efficiency, senators opposed to the drilling in Alaska should not lose sleep if their filibustering results in no legislation at all. Backers of drilling in the refuge hope that the bill's inclusion of generous terms for corn-based ethanol fuel might keep farm state opponents of Arctic drilling from joining a filibuster. They should reject this payoff.

As Senator John Kerry pointed out in Thursday's debate among the Democratic presidential candidates, opening the refuge in Alaska would do little to make the nation less dependent on foreign oil. No petroleum would flow for 10 years at the earliest. If the refuge were tapped, it would supply a grand total of six months of the country's oil needs while spoiling habitat for many threatened species.

One clue as to why Republicans in Congress fight so hard for drilling in the Arctic despite the modest contribution it could make to energy independence came from the House majority leader, Tom DeLay, last week. According to House GOP leaders quoted in Roll Call, a Capitol Hill daily newspaper, DeLay told them in a closed-door meeting that approval of drilling in the refuge would set an important precedent for energy exploration in other sensitive areas. This should set off alarm bells for congressional representatives of the many coastal areas -- including New England's Georges Bank -- and pristine wilderness areas in the West that energy prospectors have their eyes on.

The United States has 3 percent of the world's oil reserves but uses 25 percent of all oil consumed. It will never significantly reduce its dependence on foreign oil until it reduces consumption. The bill that is finally approved by the conference committee is almost certain to have few provisions to achieve this, either by mandating higher auto efficiency standards or by offering the auto industry subsidies for producing cars that use much less fuel, such as hybrids with both gas and electric motors.

An energy bill worth enacting would advance proposals for improving the nation's electrical grid, promote the use of renewable energy sources, and scale back consumption. A bill that does not do these things while giving a green light to Arctic refuge drilling deserves to be killed.


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