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The Drill


Today, the Bush administration cleared the hurdle of the Senate for drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It barely passed - 51 to 49. Is this a good thing?

I went to the dentist today and while waiting, I picked up Outside magazine. Never read it. As I did, it reminded me of Wired in its style, but for nature lovers instead. In it, John Kerry gave it both barrels in his opposition to drilling in Alaska. His summation:

We can't drill our way to energy independence. We have to invent our way there, by harnessing the entrepreneurial spirit that made our country great. We can conserve energy and make our cars run farther on a gallon of gas. We can increase our investment in clean-energy products and create hundreds of thousands of jobs along the way. What we can't do is buy into the myth that America's energy future lies under the snow of ANWR.
Is he right? I didn't know, but I wanted to check out more of what the magazine had to offer when I got home.

I looked it up and found Kerry's article, but also found that Outside had published several other articles on ANWR. One is by a guy named David Masiel who spent a lot of time in Alaska with oil companies and he's now a journalist and did his homework. He says something that needs to be said:

Both pro- and anti-drilling camps have dug their heels into the Arctic permafrost, each side deploying an array of facts and statistics, all of them "true," and most mutually exclusive.

After a journey that took me back to the Arctic for the first time in 13 years, and through dozens of interviews with policy analysts, native Alaskans, wildlife biologists, and congressional staff experts, I became convinced of only one thing: Both sides are far too entrenched to see the other side clearly.

Stefanie, a couple of days ago in the comments here at beatcanvas, took me to task for not discerning propaganda. She has a good point, which David Masiel also emphasizes: in any debate, people round up the facts best suited to propel their argument, and then they push ahead with their agenda. It's tough frankly to know what's true outside of our own experience. I have to rely on intelligent and apparently even-handed articles like David's to help me steer through the marketing. You should click through the link and read the article. It's compelling and it makes sense.
The industry's main argument is that oil production is dramatically cleaner than it was in what drillers like to call the "ram and cram" days. Now, drill bits as small as my fist snake their way four miles through the earth to previously inaccessible reservoirs, and isolated production "islands" make the sprawling well pads of old seem like vestiges of the Stone Age. In 1970, a 20-acre drill site could access 502 acres of subsurface area; by 2000, a six-acre site could reach more than 32,000. While industry touts this ability, watchdogs like the Wilderness Society charge that those claims are exaggerated: Extended-reach drilling isn't used as often or as effectively as oil companies would have us believe, and ice roads, lauded as the replacement for gravel infrastructure, place enormous stress on freshwater resources, something the 1002 doesn't have in abundance.

I wanted to see for myself....

As so he did. The result is a good article that lands somewhere in the middle of the argument.
Environmental groups point out that ANWR oil isn't going to make or break any of this—it's simply one field, a six-month supply to gas-guzzling Americans. But that assumes that ANWR oil would be the only source of energy used, a logic that, if applied elsewhere, suggests we'd burn through the Prudhoe Bay field, the largest in North America and in operation since 1977, in two and a half years. According to the United States Geological Survey, there are between 4.3 and 11.8 billion barrels under the 1002. At the current market price of $30 a barrel, the USGS estimates that 6.3 billion of those barrels are economically recoverable, compared with 5.6 billion in the NPRA, an area 16 times as large. That's a significant field by any reasonable measure.

Drilling opponents are right about American consumption, however: Conservation could save more energy than ANWR will ever provide. We can't produce our way out of dependence on foreign oil, and a comprehensive strategy for alternatives seems necessary if not inevitable. The Sierra Club, the World Wildlife Fund, and Greenpeace all argue that conservation is the cheapest and fastest way to make up for ANWR crude, and the National Resources Defense Council points out that the hype about hydrogen cells misses the mark, since the technology already exists to make 40-mile-per-gallon SUVs. But the two easiest ways to conserve fuel are to drive smaller cars and drive them more slowly, choices that have been available to the American consumer for a long time.

I'm all for conservation - it's a best practice, without a doubt. Me, I'm a contradiction: I ride my bike all over Des Moines, but I drive a Ford F-250 V-10 pickup. I know a lot of "environmentally-concerned" people who choose plastic, not paper, leave their lights on, use lots of water for their green lawn, and think recycling is too time-consuming to get disciplined about. And, of course, they drive SUV's, not a Prius.

David Masiel closes with this:

Compromise is never easy. And I suggest this one with a huge caveat: The public has a right to police this development. If the oil industry wants ANWR, the developers have to earn the public trust. The only way to do that is to open themselves to a new form of oversight, and not by the government. Rightly or wrongly, regulation tends to cause adversarialism—a feeling I know all too well. It leads to circumvention if not outright corruption. Substantial oversight should come from those who know the most and have the most at stake: environmental groups, scientists, and native Alaskans.
He's advocating transparency. Yes, exactly. As it should be.

It's tough to navigate the propaganda out there. I tire of talk radio. It's informative, but with a big skeptical ear. Newspapers, same deal, but less obvious. It was nice to read an article from someone who wanted to discover the issue for himself.


Tags: politics
by Brett Rogers, 3/16/2005 9:39:18 PM


Please stop thinking. You'll ruin our democracy.

Please don't dig into the geostatistics and mining economics or you'll really learn transparency.



Posted by Buffalo Bill, 3/19/2005 6:59:09 PM

lol - yeah, sure, okay.

If you have some cool information to add, I'd be glad to read it. In the meantime, this remains the most balanced and informative article I've read.



Posted by Brett Rogers (, 3/19/2005 7:19:48 PM

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