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Opening ANWR to stop climate change? Tell me another one

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: November 5, 2017
  • Published November 5, 2017

Now we want to drill for oil on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to hold back climate change.

Or so Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott told a U.S. Senate committee hearing on Thursday. Every other argument had been tried, most of them for decades. They were all trotted out again, even the ones that no longer made sense.

The truth is so much simpler. Alaskans want to drill for oil in ANWR because we want the money. That's really the only reason.

There's nothing wrong with wanting economic development, jobs and government services, and not wanting taxes. That's what oil money buys. Call it greed if you like, but we go to work every day for money, too. Humanity survives on Earth by using natural resources.

But in an honest debate about drilling the refuge, our desire for money isn't highly persuasive with the owners of the refuge, who are all of America's citizens. Polls generally show the public opposed by a wide margin. The oil companies stay away from the issue because it is so unpopular.

If not for this weird political moment, we wouldn't even be discussing ANWR. Drilling advocates are winning only because of the strange way the U.S. Senate does business these days.

ANWR drilling was attached to President Trump's tax cut using the same parliamentary maneuver that let the Senate consider repealing Obamacare with only Republican votes. An oil lease sale is supposed to offset $1 billion of the bill's $1.5 trillion cost.

The numbers are dubious, but the scheme gives Republicans a pretext to suspend the regular order of business and roll ahead on ANWR with minimal debate. It is the same kind of no-huddle offense that Sen. Lisa Murkowski objected to so strongly when the issue was health care.

Now Murkowski is the quarterback. Thursday at the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources she presided over the only hearing the legislation is expected to receive in either house of Congress. This is about the votes, not the merits of a huge, permanent decision.

That's only the beginning of the hypocrisy.

Mallott's contention that we need ANWR oil money to promote alternative energy brought amusing treatment from former comedian Al Franken, the Democratic Senator from Minnesota.

But seriously folks, Gov. Bill Walker had signed a big executive order on climate change just two days earlier. Mallott led that effort. Its many drafts tantalized environmentalists endlessly. The work took three years of a four-year term.

It called for forming a committee.

I don't buy that Alaskans need to feel guilty about our oil production. Oil demand is controlled at the other end of the pipe, where users burn it. If Alaska stopped pumping oil, the world's carbon emissions would not change.

But people who are more sincere about reducing climate change than is the Walker administration say the most important step is stop big investments in infrastructure that would commit the economy to using fossil fuels for many more decades.

That description fits a new oil field in the Arctic refuge that could be big, but wouldn't begin producing for a decade or more.

I've never taken a position on drilling in ANWR. Neither side inspired me.

I recall being on the North Slope with graduate students who were adamantly opposed to drilling, and witnessing their surprise when they realized the coastal plain of the refuge looked like the other flat, wet ground north of the Brooks Range. This isn't like drilling in Yosemite Valley.

But I also remember talking to a retired oil man who asked how many pipes and gravel pads can web across the Arctic and have it still be the Arctic.

Pro-drilling advocates brag constantly about the small footprint of drilling, as if an oil field is a set of discrete wells that stand by off by themselves. But Alaskans know what an Arctic oil field looks like.

Whether or not development hurts wildlife, Prudhoe Bay is an industrial area. Cumulatively, over time, when the industry finds oil, it transforms a place.

For security reasons, oil fields effectively become private land. Years ago, I sought to visit bird research sites near Prudhoe Bay with a scientist I planned to write about in Discover magazine. The field operator, BP, simply said, "No." I ended up writing about a bird scientist in England instead.

At that time BP was a convicted felon for its environmental crimes in Alaska (and the Deepwater Horizon had yet to explode in the Gulf of Mexico).

Alaskans testifying before Congress spoke as if none of this ever happened. Oil development is invisible. Oil never spills. The money from development will address climate change.

We need ANWR or the pipeline will stop operating. But throughput has risen three years running based on the incremental increases in production elsewhere on the Slope. That appears likely to continue.

We need ANWR for national security. But now the U.S. exports oil. We reached the long-sought goal of energy independence, which never brought any reduction in our military operations overseas.

Stripping away all the phony arguments, it comes down to the money. But I'm not sure that's a strong argument, either.

The balance of the North Slope west from ANWR is mostly available for eventual oil development. Companies have found new oil. Even with low oil prices, some areas near existing infrastructure are profitable to bring on line.

Drilling in the refuge won't solve our state budget problems. Pumping oil would be many years away, if it ever happens. A slug of money from a lease sale might not cover engineering costs on a typical unfinished state megaproject.

ANWR will not save us from adjusting to the new Alaska that is coming after this recession, one in which oil plays an important role, but no longer dominates.

You can gauge for yourself how badly you want Alaska to get the money that would flow from ANWR, but to me the benefit would not be worth the cost.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser.

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