Oil Drilling in Alaska

November 02, 1991

Big Oil, after a 10-year stalemate, has lost its fight, at least for now, for drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve in Alaska. Environmentalists, making ANWR their driving wedge to block energy legislation they decried as the handiwork of the petroleum, coal and nuclear power industries, resorted to a Senate filibuster to win the day. They had the support of both Maryland senators. Fifty senators, half the membership, wanted to push the measure to passage, but they lacked the 60 votes needed to cut off debate.

The last time a similar push by Big Oil was made, it ran aground with the Exxon Valdez on the rocks of Prince William Sound. This time, the industry was caught up in its inexcusable and perhaps illegal surveillance of an environmentalist, Charles Hamel, who had exposed numerous shortcomings in previous Alaska drilling operations.

These matters, while significant, hardly address the core issue of whether the search for oil on Alaska's North Slope is of sufficient national interest to override the environmental damage that still scars the landscape from earlier drilling at Prudhoe Bay. Some geologists believe petroleum reserves of Persian Gulf proportions may underlie the wildlife reserve. Maybe yes, maybe no. The industry contends new techniques and new awareness will restrict ecological damage. To which environments reply that no new sources of oil, no matter how large, will safeguard national security so long as the American appetite for energy goes unchecked. They also contend that any drilling in the wildlife preserve will endanger caribou, polar bears, migratory birds and other species and leave poisonous residues once the oil men leave.

We continue to believe the United States should reduce its dependence on foreign oil through a variety of means: development of alternative fuels, enforcement of high efficiency

standards for automobiles and other energy-eaters, adding to strategic reserves and renewal of the nuclear power industry. This list is not complete, however, unless the U.S. taps its domestic sources of oil, not only off-shore and on the Alaska slope but in such traditional areas as Texas, Louisiana and the Rockies. It is a disgrace that national policy did not prevent the capping of thousands of small wells in the continental U.S. after the oil shocks of the '70s.

Despite the latest Senate roadblock, Congress should still approve drilling at ANWR; this is a resource opportunity that cannot be overlooked. But in doing so it should insist on air-tight controls, closely monitored by federal authorities, so a major oil strike will serve as a lasting example of how to do things right. So much has gone wrong in the past that the oil industry must be policed.

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