California’s crisis means ANWR should be opened

Published May 1, 2001

The Golden State is losing some of its luster, as energy prices soar, shortages become more acute, rolling blackouts disrupt lives and businesses, and utility companies confront bankruptcy. Meanwhile, many California residents cheered ex-President Bill Clinton’s orders closing millions of acres of land to energy exploration, and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California) berated Interior Secretary Gale Norton for suggesting that a small slice of frozen tundra in Alaska should be opened to petroleum exploration.

Ideologically hidebound politicians and environmental activists will never admit that their straitjacket land policies and phony electricity “deregulation” scheme played starring roles in spawning the crisis. The spreading fiasco is rooted in first-grade-level cause-and-effect: too much demand chasing too little energy production.

For the past decade, California’s energy demands have risen nearly twice as fast as the national average. Yet the state produces only 75 to 85 percent of the energy it consumes. Indeed, it produces less electricity per capita than any other state, reflecting its failure to build any new generating plants in over a decade.

Instead, California has imported electricity from states that now are charging more, because they have little surplus juice to spare and must deal with stream flow and air quality issues that California’s energy imperialists preferred to dump on someone else.

Compounding the problem, the state insisted on natural gas (rather than nuclear power or coal) to generate electricity in its aging plants. Then it led the charge to close forests, grasslands, and offshore areas to natural gas exploration and development–not just in California, but throughout the western states, on America’s Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), and in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Even now, Golden State greens and pols would rather freeze in the dark than bend on environmental purity.

Government geologists estimate ANWR could hold 6 to 16 billion barrels of recoverable oil. That’s between 22 and 58 years’ worth of imports from Saddam Hussein. Turned into gasoline, ANWR reserves would power California’s cars and trucks for between 18 and 50 years. Midrange estimates put its natural gas potential at 4 trillion cubic feet–enough to fuel California’s homes, hospitals, schools, and businesses for years.

Environmentalists naturally claim energy development would “irreparably destroy one of America’s crown jewels.” The facts don’t support that assertion.

ANWR is the size of South Carolina–19 million acres. Of all this land, only 2,000 acres along the coastal plain would actually be disturbed by drilling and development. That’s one-twentieth of the land area of Washington, DC; just 20 of the buildings Boeing uses to manufacture its 747 jets!

As to ANWR being a “crown jewel,” the beautiful mountains seen in all the anti-drilling photos are actually 50 to 100 miles from the coastal plain. The potentially oil-rich area is nothing more than a flat, treeless stretch of tundra. During eight or nine months of winter, when drilling would take place, virtually no wildlife are present–and who could blame the critters for heading south? Winter temperatures drop as low as -40 degrees F. The tundra turns rock-solid. Spit, and your saliva freezes before it hits the ground.

But the nasty conditions mean drilling can be done with ice airstrips, roads, and platforms. During the summer, caribou return, along with arctic fox, geese, shore birds, and the Alaska state bird, Mosquito giganteus. If ANWR is opened to oil drilling, come summer, the ice airstrips, roads, and platforms would melt, leaving only puddles and little holes. And the caribou would do just what they have for 25 years in the middle of the nearby Prudhoe Bay oil field: hang out, eat, and make babies. In fact, Prudhoe’s caribou herd has increased from 6,000 head in 1978 to 27,000 last year.

Drilling for oil and gas in ANWR and the OCS will not solve California’s immediate problem. That will require an honest commitment by its lawmakers and citizens to stop looking for scapegoats, confront the root causes of the crisis, and fast-track construction of more electricity-generating power plants. But drilling is a key component of any sound, rational energy policy for a state and nation that imports nearly 60 percent of its oil and faces dwindling supplies of natural gas.

If California wants national help in addressing its self-induced energy crisis, it could gain much-needed support by displaying bipartisan leadership in support of opening ANWR, the OCS, and other public lands to exploration . . . and restoring balance to our environmental policies.

Paul Driessen is a senior fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and principal of Global-Comm Partners, in Fairfax, Virginia.