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Big Oil, Caribou, and Greed
The debate over ANWR.


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Jonah Goldberg

I had a long talk with Poppa Goldberg last night. Poppa G (no relation to Kenny) knows more about good column-writing than the Pope knows about midget basketball and fly-fishing, put together. But I guess that’s not saying much. How about: My dad knows more about this stuff than Gandhi knew about rice cakes and non-binding clothes.

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Anyway, Poppa G says my columns are getting a bit too formulaic: a joke in the beginning, some overly wordy serious stuff, then more jokes, and a smart-ass finish. Hey, when you think about it, that’s a pretty apt description of the Clinton years.

So, starting Monday, we’ll try to start mixing up the formula around here. But today, I have something very serious to talk to you about: Simple, Chronic Comsotosis — my word for bad doggy breath. No, that’s not right.

Actually, what I want to talk to you about is my expense account. As very close readers of this column know, you get a severe headache when you sit too close to the computer screen. But they also know that I recently went to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I hung out with folks who know how to fix their own cars and have totally legitimate reasons to carry knives on their belts. I also got to see what Joe Lieberman called “one of the most beautiful, pristine places that the good Lord has created on Earth” and “one of God’s most awesome creations.”

This is a form of divine slander, like saying Ghostbusters II was some of Bill Murray’s best work; it’s unfair both to God and to the cooler stuff in the Almighty’s oeuvre. But such declarations are also a con. When you watch the evening-news programs on ANWR, most of the time you see mountains and beautiful rivers and lakes and all that. But that’s not where they want to drill for oil. In fact, they can’t drill for oil in those places for two very straightforward reasons. First, there’s no oil there. Second, it’s against the law.

In fact, the only spot where it’s legal to drill for oil is on what’s called the coastal plain of ANWR, the snippet on the northern coast of the Refuge. You rarely see pictures of the coastal plain, because it’s not what TV producers call a “beauty shot” (I know this hyper-technical TV lingo from my years as a producer). So, they show mountains and Disney animals and crystal-clear running water and say, “This is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where the evil greasy snout-nosed Republicans want to gouge the planet for a thimbleful of oil.”

But that’s only true in the sense it’s not an outright lie. Yes, the drilling would be in ANWR, but it wouldn’t be where the beauty shots are. It’s like doing an on-location report on New York City’s urban blight and crime, but broadcasting from a café in Rockefeller Center. The coastal plain is, in fact, a vast tract of peat bog and mud puddles (sounds like a crime fighting duo: “Tune in this fall to see Pete Bog and his fast-talking streetwise sidekick Mudd Puddles, tackle evildoers. Tuesdays at 9.”).

The coastal plain is a breeding ground for all sorts of awful flying critters. There are trillions of mosquitoes. There are these creatures called warble flies and nosebots, two bumblebee-like flies that cause the caribou unrelenting grief. I could swear I even saw Alan Dershowitz whiz past my ear.

Sure, it’s possible to think this spot is beautiful. People find all sorts of things beautiful these days. In fact, a man sold a can of his own excrement at an auction for tens of thousands of dollars a few years back. If that’s art, hell, then the coastal plain is Shangri-frickin’-La.

But the truth is that the beauty of the coastal plain isn’t really in the eye of the beholder, it’s in the imagination of the angst-ridden liberals who have never beheld the thing and never will. Pay attention to the debate over ANWR and a single word will come up more than any other (discounting definite articles like “a” and “the,” which come up a lot in pretty much every debate). That word is “pristine.”

I understand the appeal of pristineness; the idea that a place or a thing is precisely as God made it can be very compelling. But the key point is that it’s an idea. There’s nothing inherently beautiful about pristineness. But when I listen to opponents of oil exploration in ANWR I get the distinct impression that what they really mean isn’t so much that ANWR is beautiful in itself, but that humans are ugly. In fact, I bet if you asked someone from Greenpeace if there were any place in the world that is devoid of humans and also ugly, they wouldn’t be able to name one.

This is why there is no compromising on the anti side of this argument. The oil industry has made huge strides in oil exploration in the last few decades. The oil under the coastal plain could literally be extracted during the dead of winter — when it’s night for 58 straight days and no caribou would be dumb enough to come within 500 miles of the Arctic Ocean — and all that would be left come spring would be a couple of Portosan-sized boxes (which the caribou would probably climb onto to catch a better wind and avoid the bugs that breed in their nostrils — I am not kidding).

But the environmentalists refuse to accept any concessions from the industry, because you can’t be a little bit pregnant and you can’t be a little bit pristine. It’s like ANWR is a new car, and the second you drive it off the lot by poking a teeny-tiny hole in the ground, it’s “used.” The idea is ruined, even though the idea was false all along. The coastal plain isn’t pristine — the Inupiat Eskimos, who support drilling in their homeland, have been offing the caribou up there for centuries.

What really drove home for me how much arbitrary abstraction is involved on the anti side of this debate were my efforts to get to ANWR in the first place. The tour I signed up for didn’t bring me to ANWR. It brought me to the Alpine oil facility run by Phillips Petroleum in Prudhoe Bay, a couple of hundred miles from ANWR. At Alpine, by the way, the caribou are thriving despite twenty years of oil extraction with machinery far clunkier than the stuff that would be used in ANWR.

The problem for me was that I couldn’t go all the way up to the top shelf of the planet to write an article about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge-without actually going there. The roughnecks and engineers thought I was a moron for insisting on seeing an area that looks exactly like the area around Prudhoe.

“Just look out the window. That’s what ANWR looks like.”

It didn’t matter. I had to go because of a totally abstract journalistic convention that dictated that I go. So, I hired a small charter plane (which came with an emergency kit in the off chance that I got stuck out in the bush in bear country). We flew over to ANWR and guess what? Another endless ocean of puddles and tundra.

Now, here’s the kicker. That plane was really expensive. And so was my hotel. In fact, the whole trip cost a lot more than we planned and the greedy oil companies aren’t covering my freight. Which brings me back to the real issue: my expense account. We all know that copper wire was invented when someone tried to pry an extra penny out of the NR home office. Well, when the NR suits see my expenses it’s gonna take the jaws of life to get full reimbursement.

That’s where you come in. The full story of my trip to ANWR will not be posted on National Review Online — at all, ever. Cover stories of National Review OnDeadTree do not get posted on National Review Online. This is a matter of policy set by forces far more powerful than me; forces of bottomless, dark, unfathomable, nigh-upon-Stygian depth; forces which have been rumored to rhyme with Pitch Dowry.

Still, if you do not subscribe to NRODT, and you want to read the full, definitive story, you must purchase the magazine. Moreover, the rush to get a copy of this magazine must be so huge, so massive so as to create a jet stream that virtually snatches my reimbursement check out of the iron claws of the NR accounting office. Newsstands should be buried in confetti from the periodical-shredding dogfights over the last copy of the August 9 issue of National Review. Bookstore coffee houses should drown in a sea of spilt lattes.

For if there is not such a groundswell, if the ad revenues and newsstand sales do not surge like Alec Baldwin’s skull after an overdose of Viagra, then there’s no way the home office will ever approve my expense report and they will never send me anywhere else again. And if I cannot travel the globe as a peripatetic scribe in pursuit of truth and reimbursed alcohol consumption, then the hotel and airport bars which form the backbone of the American, nay, the global economy will shudder from my absence.

It’s all riding on you.

Sorry, Dad.



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