A sensible approach to Alaskan oil

August 13, 1998

An excerpt from a Tuesday Chicago Tribune editorial:

INTERIOR Secretary Bruce Babbitt has unveiled a plan to allow limited leasing of oil and gas reserves on a part of the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska.

The plan pleases neither the oil industry, which wanted much more access, nor environmentalists, who wanted the secretary to bar all exploratory drilling.

The plan represents a "balance," the secretary said, based on "sound science." It came after 18 months of study, numerous hearings and his own personal field trip to the frozen tundra.

Critics ask why the big hurry? The world is swimming in oil, which is selling for less than $14 a barrel, a third less than its price a year ago. The industry counters that leases signed today wouldn't produce oil for years and that a decade hence the energy situation may be vastly different.

Harding's reserve

The reserve was established 75 years ago by President Warren Harding as an emergency oil source for the U.S. Navy. Beneath its 23 million acres -- an area about the size of Indiana -- lie an estimated 400 million to 3 billion barrels of oil.

Except for minor exploratory drilling in the 1940s and again in the mid-1980s, the land has remained pristine, a wild, frozen home for migratory birds, waterfowl, caribou, moose and bears.

The area to be opened for leasing and exploratory drilling is 4.6 million acres in the northeastern quadrant of the reserve between the Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean. But the industry will be barred from developing environmentally sensitive areas that hold the greatest promise for oil.

To the east of the petroleum reserve and on the other side of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline lies the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an equally vast area the Reagan administration wrongly proposed opening to oil exploration more than a decade ago. That refuge remains sacrosanct, as it should.

In contrast, Congress 17 years ago passed a law allowing the government to plan development of the National Petroleum Reserve. Mr. Babbitt's action is well within that law.

Pub Date: 8/13/98

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