Monday, March 21, 2005

Trading ANWR
With the Senate having narrowly approved drilling in a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), this issue has moved to the front burner for all parties concerned. I hear the same old canards about its insignificance to our energy needs, but no one is talking about what kind of quid pro quo might be possible, if ANWR were to be opened up for exploration.

Let's start with the canards. "It's only six months' worth of oil" is simply the wrong way to look at this, as I've explained previously. The best analogy is to the development of the Alaskan North Slope, which was also controversial in its day. The same insignificance argument might have been made about that field, which was originally thought to contain about 10 billion barrels of oil, comparable to current estimates for ANWR. From 1976, when oil started pumping, through 2000 the North Slope and nearby fields had produced 13.3 billion barrels--about 14% of all US oil production over this period--and was a key factor, along with the North Sea, in limiting OPEC's market power in the 1980s and 90s. Though now in decline, the North Slope area still produces nearly one million barrels per day.

No one seriously suggests that ANWR can give us energy independence, but even if its potential is only half that of the North Slope, this must still be reckoned as significant.

Turning to the kind of "practical environmentalism" I discussed in Friday's posting, the challenges of expanding global oil supplies to keep up with economic development in Asia, along with the timelags inherent in a transition to any other form of energy, make it very likely that ANWR's oil reserves will eventually be developed. If so, then environmentalists may never again have as much leverage as they do now to extract concessions in exchange for going along with opening up ANWR to limited drilling.

If that sounds cynical, consider that ANWR, however large and majestic, is only one small, remote corner of this vast country. Would getting something that benefits the entire nation or the world, such as a cap on US carbon emissions or tougher fuel economy standards, be worth conceding a bit on ANWR--with proper safeguards to ensure that the best technology is used? There's no easy way to evaluate such a tradeoff, but surely this would be a better outcome than having ANWR developed without any offsetting benefit, which I consider a very plausible scenario.

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