Monday, February 04, 2008

Protecting the Bears

Never underestimate the problems of forcing a choice between economic interests and "charismatic mega-fauna." And they just don't get more charismatic or mega- than the polar bears potentially at risk from their proximity to drilling for arctic oil resources in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska. The present controversy arises from the prospect of an imminent oil lease sale proceeding before the Department of Fish and Wildlife issues its finding on whether the area's polar bear population is endangered. Opponents have filed a lawsuit and a bill in Congress to block the lease sale by the Minerals Management Service. Once again, access to vital energy supplies and protection of the environment seem to be in direct conflict, and without an altogether different approach, it is hard to imagine an outcome in which energy wins.

There has been much speculation recently about the degree to which receding polar ice could open up vast new energy resources around the arctic, both within US territorial waters and in waters subject to the UN Law of the Sea Treaty. A few commentators have noted the irony that global warming driven by fossil fuel combustion might make it possible to find yet more fossil fuels. However we look at it, though, we have two colliding realities: rapid changes in the arctic environment as a result of global warming--with accompanying consequences for the indigenous fauna and native humans--and growing concerns about the economic and national security implications of the increasing reliance of the US on foreign oil suppliers. The polar bears are caught in the middle of these trends, and they have powerful friends.

On the surface, it seems easy to dismiss the potential of Chukchi Sea oil and gas resources that have been estimated at 15 billion barrels and 79 trillion cubic feet, respectively, but that are presumably ten or more years away from production. If you believe that within a decade or so the US will be energy independent, anyway, as a result of conservation and a much greater reliance on biofuels, then the prospect of an extra million barrels per day of oil production from Alaska might not sound very urgent or important. That potential must be weighed against the risk that drilling activities, including increased shipping and possible oil spills, would increase the stress on a polar bear population already threatened by climate change. That sounds like a steep price to pay for an insurance policy on energy security that we can achieve in other ways.

But of course, we aren't going to be energy independent within a decade, particularly if we block every new conventional energy project. As I noted last week, the production of cellulosic ethanol mandated under the 2007 Energy Bill is still subject to a number of technical, logistical and economic risks, so we can't be sure that even the 21 billion gallon per year target for 2022, equivalent to just under a million barrels per day of oil--less than 5% of current US demand--can be met. And while achieving the new 35 mpg fuel economy standard for 2020 will certainly reduce gasoline consumption and oil imports, this simply won't be enough to close the large gap between domestic supplies and total demand, even though the latter has stalled for the last three years. The only thing we can predict with certainty about our energy situation ten years from now is that we will still be importing more oil than our neighbors Canada and Mexico can provide.

Common sense suggests that we need a real artic resource policy, not just an ad hoc ruling governing one lease sale, even if the area involved is the size of Pennsylvania. That includes understanding the impact of drilling on all the native fauna, not just the bears, and it should provide as clear a picture as possible of their fate under various scenarios of further climate change, significant amounts of which are already "baked in", with or without drilling. The result ought to be a consensus plan for which parts of the enormous arctic hydrocarbon resource base should be produced and which must be foregone, even with high energy prices and the best available exploitation technology. The gravity of such a decision argues against haste, and especially against squeezing it in during the waning days of an unpopular administration. The companies that would be investing in these resources will only do so if they know they can count on stable policies over the life of these enormously expensive projects, particularly during the critical phase from decision to first production.

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