The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should be open to careful oil and gas exploration. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has heard considerable testimony in favor of wilderness designation for the coastal plain, also known as the 1002 area. If adopted, wilderness status would put the coastal plain permanently off limits.
That's the wrong choice.
Why? The coastal plain likely contains anywhere from 6 billion to 16 billion barrels of recoverable oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas.
For Alaska's economy, the gain is obvious. We'd keep exploration and development going, keep the trans-Alaska pipeline operating at high capacity, provide jobs, maintain the state treasury for public services like education and continue healthy deposits into the Permanent Fund, our long-term savings account.
For the nation, production from ANWR would mean more of our oil would come from domestic sources. Producing more of our own energy from all sources is a national priority with bipartisan support. In this context, ANWR makes sense if we pursue a national strategy that makes the most of our fossil fuel reserves while in the long term reducing our dependence on all oil, foreign and domestic. Otherwise we'll just burn our way back to a dangerous dependence.
This is a tough time to call for more oil and gas exploration. And it should be. The disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has raised a lot of questions that need solid, honest answers. Even though ANWR is onshore, there's renewed skepticism about industry claims that they can do it right.
But let's remember that the industry can do it right -- especially when held accountable by governments and citizens who demand that no corners be cut, that best available technology be the norm and that maximizing profit never trumps care for safety and the environment.
Let's remember, too, that the coastal plain was deliberately left out of wilderness status in the refuge in 1980 precisely because of its oil and gas potential.
The battle over ANWR has gone on for three decades. Some environmental groups regard it as a "cathedral," a battleground not subject to compromise, where pristine is the only acceptable status and even the best oil industry practices would be desecration, no different than drilling in the Grand Canyon or Yosemite.
One drilling foe wrote that the reserves of oil beneath the coastal plain are irrelevant; the land should be protected, period.
But the reserves of oil are relevant. Not all the world is as dependent on oil as Alaska, but the world's economies still run on oil and gas and other resources.
The real challenge -- and much tougher than rote support for either development or preservation -- is how and where to produce what we need and still protect our environments. The coastal plain is rich in both oil and gas and wild beauty.
We can and should tap the oil with sufficient care to protect the wild.
As Alaskans have learned over the last 30 years, keeping the coastal plain out of wilderness status hardly guarantees drilling. But for now, at the least, we need to keep the option open.
BOTTOM LINE: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will conduct an open house and hear public testimony from 3 to 9 p.m. today at the service office at 1011 E. Tudor Road. Refuge staffers will be available for questions and discussions, and public testimony will be taken from 4 to 6 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. A similar open house will be in Fairbanks on Thursday. Written comments will be accepted through June 7 by e-mail at ArcticRefugeCCP@fws.gov, or regular mail to: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Arctic NWR -- Sharon Seim, 101 12th Ave., Room 236, Fairbanks 99701.