Alaska oil debate: the bear deception

You turn a corner on a trail and suddenly, 40 feet ahead, a bear is pawing at the dirt. Breath caught short, you stop in your tracks and swallow hard. The bear turns quickly and faces you, rearing up on its hind legs for a better view. You stop and await its move. On all fours now, it paws at the ground, grunting and popping its jaws. It lifts its head and, in a moment of eerie silence, stares at you, ears back, ready to charge. You avert your eyes, terrified. The last thing you see is the blur of its coat advancing upon you.

One “whoosh” later, you open your eyes and, body parts still intact, gaze after the bear as it runs away. Victim of a “bluff charge,” you were roused to intense fear on account of the sight of a bear.

For the last week, Student Public Interest Research Group (SPIRG) posters have confronted Yale students with the image of a bear. White, cute and eliciting comments such as, “I wish I could pet it,” it is not quite the menacing figure that just “bluff charged” you. But encroaching upon this endearing image is a pane of black, beaded oil. The purpose of this poster: to protest oil drilling in Alaska and to invite students to a rally in Washington, D.C. next Tuesday.

On Tuesday, Congress will vote on a budget that includes provisions under which oil drilling is no longer prohibited in one part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR. If this bill is passed, Area 1,002, a stretch of land along the coastal plain of Northeast Alaska, could be explored and drilled for oil. SPIRG — a national student advocacy organization — alleges that such drilling will result in adverse effects on the ecological system, the displacement of native Alaskans and a proportionately small effect on the U.S. economy.

But these allegations amount to little more than the “bluff charge” of the bear: They instill fear in a situation that will not result in significant harm. Consider the ecological point. As in any development, it is true that a certain amount of previously untouched land will be removed from participation in the natural ecosystem. However, the numbers in this case undermine the claim that development will have a substantial effect in the region.

The ANWR is a plot of land of about 19 million acres, which, for comparison, is significantly larger than West Virginia’s 15.5 million acres. Area 1,002, which is the only piece of land being considered for development, is 1.5 million acres of the expanse. Of these 1.5 million acres, it is estimated that only 2,000 acres will be used as sites for oil extraction. Roads and maintenance facilities will of course use additional space, but even when this is taken into consideration, the potential land use is insignificant when compared to the 19 million acres in the ANWR as a whole.

Furthermore, Area 1,002, also called the Coastal Plain, is largely a featureless stretch of land; part of the deep Arctic, the area hosts few animal species, and because of a short growing season, no plants grow above a few feet tall. This is not some natural beauty that must remain preserved at all costs.

Regarding the native Alaskan population, it is true that there is an Inupiat Eskimo population of 220 in the town of Kaktovik within the ANWR. Once again, however, there is no problem — the Inupiat support opening the area for drilling.

The final and most deceptive claim of SPIRG, however, is that oil drilling in the region would have little effect on the economy. In 1998, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that there are between five and 15 billion barrels of recoverable oil in Area 1,002, thus demarcating the largest oil field in America. Assuming the survey’s mean value of 10.4 billion barrels, at peak production the area could produce about 1.4 million barrels of oil a day for 20 years.

To put this figure into perspective, consider the state of American oil imports. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, this year we have imported an average of about 1.6 million barrels a day from Saudi Arabia, our second-largest oil import (first is Canada, at about 1.8 million barrels). The opening of the Coastal Plain would certainly reduce America’s dependence upon Middle Eastern oil. Furthermore, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it is clear that a diversified domestic production of oil is in America’s best interest.

Those who raise the specter of cuddly bears being wiped out by oil are utilizing scare tactics to advance a radical “environmental” agenda. In truth, such action is saddening because it delegitimizes other goals of the traditional environmental movement — a movement that has long emphasized stewardship as well as preservation; improvement as well as conservation. Americans should refocus on these worthy purposes — they should refocus on worthy lands. The barren Coastal Plain of the ANWR is no such location; don’t be fooled by this “bluff charge.”



Peter Johnston is a freshman in Saybrook College.

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