Palin and Lieberman: At odds over ANWR

Gone are the days on the campaign trail when Sen. Joe Lieberman would introduce Gov. Sarah Palin at McCain-Palin rallies as “a breath of fresh Alaska air.” Now the two have squared off on opposite sides of a renewed debate over drilling for oil in ANWR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Lieberman and 23 other U.S. senators introduced a bill Wednesday which would close that part of Alaska’s coastal plain to oil and gas development. In a statement, the Connecticut Senator described ANWR as

“…a pristine natural treasure that must be preserved for future generations.”

But Lieberman and many of his co-sponsors have never even visited ANWR. Jonah Goldberg has been there, and “pristine” is not his word for the relatively small portion of ANWR where energy realists want to drill:

ANWR is 19.6 million acres, about the size of South Carolina. And it’s beautiful. Well, most of it is. But more about that in a moment. On the very northern cusp of ANWR is what is commonly called the coastal plain, a tract of flat tundra largely indistinguishable from other spots along the coast and throughout the region. This comprises about 8 percent of the refuge-but an even smaller fraction of its pretty scenery. Some of this area is already off-limits to oil exploration, permanently. Nonetheless, the U.S. Geological Survey — seconded by industry experts-believes there could be untold billions of barrels of oil in the swath still legally available. The oil industry says it would need to use only 2,000 acres-an area no bigger than Dulles Airport, outside D.C.-to get that oil. This footprint would be 50 times smaller than the Montana ranch owned by Ted Turner, who helps bankroll efforts to keep ANWR off-limits…

There’s little doubt that for much of human history most reasonable people would have considered this spot the definition of the word “godforsaken.” You need not look back, for evidence, to the ancient pilgrims who died on the frozen tundra. You could simply read an old copy of the Washington Post from 14 years ago: “[T]hat part of the [ANWR] is one of the bleakest, most remote places on this continent, and there is hardly any other where drilling would have less impact on the surrounding life.”

Two decades have intervened, and an environmental fatwa has been issued declaring that the word “pristine” is synonymous with “beautiful” or “sacred.” Of course, anyone who has seen a mint-condition AMC Gremlin knows that pristineness and aesthetic appeal have only a coincidental relationship. Even ANWR fetishists concede that in the winter, with its complete darkness and 70-below-zero temperatures-not counting wind chill-this is no paradise.

But then, it’s no paradise in the summertime either. During the winter, the entire coastal plain is covered by a vast tarp of ice; when the sun comes back, the resulting thaw creates, well, lots of puddles. These patches of freestanding water pock the flat tundra for as far as the eye can see; that’s why this barren region is the only place the U.S. government recognizes as both a desert and a wetland. The water in an old tire can breed thousands of mosquitoes; a puddle in a junkyard, millions. ANWR is the Great Kingdom of the Mosquitoes.

In the U.S. House, Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) introduced a measure of his own, the “Udall-Eisenhower Arctic Wilderness Act,” to permanently shut the coastal plain off to oil exploration.

Supporting the legislative initiatives of Markey and Lieberman is an alliance of environmental groups, including the National Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation.

On the other side of the debate, Alaska’s governor, who has also been to ANWR, released a statement making the case for leaving open the tiny portion of ANWR where vast reserves of oil and natural gas have been estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey to exist:

* Oil from ANWR represents a huge, secure domestic supply that could help satisfy U.S. demand for more than 25 years.

* ANWR sits within a 20 million acre refuge (the size of South Carolina) but thanks to advanced technology like directional drilling, the aggregated drilling footprint would be less than 2,000 acres (about one-quarter the size of Dulles Airport). This is like laying a two-by-three-foot welcome mat on a basketball court.

* Energy development is quite compatible with the protection of our wildlife and their habitat. For example, North Slope caribou herds have grown and remained healthy throughout more than three decades of our oil development. Most of the year, our coastal plain is frozen solid and thus characterized by low biological productivity.

* ANWR development would create hundreds of thousands of good American jobs, positively affecting every state by providing a safe energy supply and generating demand for goods and services.

* Development here would reduce U.S. dependence on unstable, dangerous sources of energy such as the Middle East, and would decrease our huge trade deficit, a large percentage of which is directly attributable to oil imports.

* Incremental ANWR production would help reduce energy price volatility. Previous price disruptions demonstrate how even relatively low levels of oil production influence world prices.

* Federal revenues from ANWR – cash bids, leases, and oil taxes – would help reduce the multi-trillion dollar national debt, and we’d circulate U.S. petrodollars in our own country instead of continuing to send hundreds of billions of our dollars overseas, creating jobs and stronger economies in other countries.

Gov. Palin expanded on her argument, putting the issue in the framework of geopolitics:

Energy-producing countries are rapidly gaining world power. Several of these countries have objectives and value systems that are antithetical to U.S. interests.

Washington politicians should be horrified as we become increasingly dependent on these insecure, foreign sources while our U.S. petrodollars finance activities that harm America and our economic and military interests around the world.

If we don’t move now to enact a comprehensive energy policy that includes domestic oil and gas production – including ANWR – we will look back someday and regret that we failed to perceive a critical crossroads in the history of America. It’s not overly dramatic to say our nation’s future depends on the decisions made by the federal government over the next few months.

On the governor’s side in the debate is freshman Senator Mark Begich, a Democrat. The two are not quite the political odd couple they may seem at first glance. All three members of the bi-partisan Alaska delegation to the nation’s capitol agree on the ANWR issue. In addition, opening this small fraction of ANWR’s land to drilling has been supported by the Alaska State Legislature every year since the debate began over a quarter of a century ago. Not one Alaska delegate or Governor has wavered on this issue. They are all Alaskans, and they know ANWR.

Some things have changed since ANWR drilling was last a hot issue. In July, when pump prices were $4.00 a gallon for gasoline, polls showed that public support for drilling there was increasing. Now prices are less than half of their summer levels. With cheaper gasoline available, public support for drilling in ANWR may have fallen off. Also, the complexion of the Congress has changed, as Democrats, who are more likely to side with the environmental lobby on the issue, have increased their numbers in both houses.

But Gov. Palin and Sen. Begich have another ally on their side – resentment. Many Senate Democrats are still seething over Lieberman’s open support for Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, especially his appearance at the GOP convention. In his RNC speech Lieberman criticized president-elect Obama for “voting to cut off funding for our troops on the ground,” and praised McCain for having “the courage to stand against the tide of public opinion and support the surge…” Some Senators may vote against Lieberman’s bill just to give the Connecticut Senator the political payback they have itching to deal out.

– JP