Politics & Policy

ANWR: Our Frozen Energy Debate

No better time to end the arguments about drilling in Alaska.

Confronted with an energy shortage, Congress debates opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling. Senator Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.) argues that “oil extracted from the wildlife refuge wouldn’t reach refineries for seven to ten years.” Senator Jeff Bingaman (D., N.M.) is more pessimistic, saying “drilling in ANWR wouldn’t get us any oil for at least ten years.” Leading the successful filibuster of the provision, Senator John Kerry (D., Mass.) echoes Bingaman, saying, “If we opened ANWR today it wouldn’t produce any oil for at least ten years.”

This exchange happened in 2001, when President Bush proposed opening ANWR to drilling in his energy plan. But one need only change some of the details to update the story for today.

Last Wednesday, with gas prices over $4 a gallon, even before an expected summer spike, the House passed another provision to open ANWR for development, reopening the debate. A decade later, the arguments, and many of the actors, are the same. To wit, during a hearing in early February, Senator Cantwell, two months shy of the ten-year anniversary of her initial pronouncement, warned that oil from ANWR “would only decrease the price of gasoline three to five cents, and it wouldn’t even do that until 2030.”

ANWR’s fate has been debated in Congress since the late 1970s. Representative Don Young (R., Alaska) recounts that he’s helped pass provisions in the House to open ANWR a dozen times in his career. Had those provisions been successful, say, when the Exxon Valdez spill scared people away from the issue in the late 1980s, or when President Clinton vetoed the proposal in 1996, or when Senator Kerry filibustered it in the Senate in 2001, we would already have that oil on the market. The estimate that ANWR won’t provide oil for ten years is as much a reason for urgency as it is for postponement. In ten years, we’ll want that oil as much as we do now.

The ten-year estimation is also inflated. To listen to ANWR critics, it seems as if the very forces of nature have conspired to burrow oil so deep into Alaska’s arctic core that we would need a decade just to find and extract it. In reality, it could take less than five years to physically prepare for drilling. Given a year for the Environmental Impact Survey, between a year and 18 months for the Department of the Interior to lease out the land, and two years for test drilling and analysis (expedited by the fact that there’s already a test well in the area), ANWR oil wells could be operational by 2017. However, as John Basil Utley reported in Reason, there are eleven “litigation choke points” which could halt the process. It’s only after accounting for five years of legal and bureaucratic interruptions, then, that analysts conclude that drilling in ANWR is ten years away.

Even if oil from ANWR wouldn’t hit the market for a decade, other benefits would accrue during that period. One of the stated reasons for the GOP’s inclusion of ANWR in this year’s highway bill is that the site’s leasing fees would help pay for infrastructure projects. To that end, the CBO predicts $2.5 billion of net federal revenue from ANWR over the next decade. Republicans argue that the figure will be even higher. The preparations for drilling would also create thousands of jobs, though estimates range wildly, from 65,000 to 770,000. Many of these jobs would have to be filled before drilling starts, in order to build the 75-mile pipeline spur required to transport the oil to port.

In short, the argument that oil from ANWR won’t help for another decade shouldn’t turn anyone off of drilling. Prohibiting all oil drilling in ANWR has brought us nothing except endless arguments about drilling in ANWR.

— Nash Keune is a Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the Franklin Center.


The Latest