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Slick politics

Drilling in the Arctic won’t solve the oil crunch. We need an energy policy that works.

Senator John Kerry is right to threaten a filibuster if the Senate moves to approve President George W. Bush’s plan to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And Republican senators from New England — including Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Jim Jeffords of Vermont, Bob Smith of New Hampshire, and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island — are right to oppose the plan. It betrays a failure of imagination in the nation’s energy policies.

Bush maintains that the United States must reduce its dependence on foreign oil. He’s right. According to the Department of Energy, the US imports a little over half its oil. In 1973, we imported just 34 percent. The DOE estimates that by 2010 we could depend on foreign producers for three-quarters of our oil needs. Bush’s solution? Increase domestic production of oil, which has been in decline since 1970.

A better solution would be to reduce our dependence on oil, period. Even if drilling goes forward in the Arctic, it won’t solve our oil-supply problems. A 1998 analysis by the US Geological Survey, upon which the petroleum industry relies, shows that there may be anywhere from 5.7 billion to 16 billion barrels of oil in the Arctic refuge. The former quantity would meet domestic oil demand for about two years; the latter would “offset our imports from Saudi Arabia for 30 years,” as Alaskan senator Frank Murkowski recently put it to CNNfn’s Market Call. Of course, those estimates reflect the amount of oil that’s technically feasible to retrieve, not economically feasible. If it turns out to cost $500 a barrel to pump the oil out, it won’t be worth it.

But the bottom line is that no matter how much oil we pump from the Arctic into our sport-utility vehicles, mini-vans, and gas-guzzling luxury cars, it will merely postpone the inevitable. The DOE reports that the world will begin running out of fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas between 2020 and 2060.

We’ve already lived through the damage that an energy crisis can do to the economy. The 1974 Arab oil embargo wreaked havoc in this country. The Iranian oil embargo of 1979 sparked a recession, as did the Persian Gulf War in 1990. And rising fuel prices in the past year did what Alan Greenspan tried to do but couldn’t — slowed our red-hot economy to the point where people now fear another recession.

Furthermore, our dependence on fossil fuels is rotting the earth. Our air, water, and soil become more polluted each day, while carbon-dioxide emissions, which come from the burning of fossil fuels, increase global warming. Chlorofluorocarbons, methane, nitrous oxide, and hydrocarbons also cause global warming, but the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that carbon dioxide accounts for half to two-thirds of human sources of excessive greenhouse gases.

The answer is to begin replacing our use of nonrenewable fossil fuels — once we use them, they’re gone — with clean, sustainable sources of energy. The marketplace is already moving in this direction. Honda and Toyota have come out with cars that run on a mixture of gasoline and electricity. Ford and DaimlerChrysler are working on fuel-cell technology that runs on electricity from converted hydrogen. (Ford promises a fuel-cell SUV in the next few years; DaimlerChrysler says it’ll have a fuel-cell Mercedes on the market by 2005.)

But these efforts don’t even begin to address the problem. We need research into and development of solar energy, wind energy, water power, geothermal energy (which utilizes heat from the earth’s core), and agricultural energy (low-maintenance crops that can be converted into fuel). To get this, we need leadership from our politicians. It won’t come from Bush. After all, he appointed former Michigan senator Spencer Abraham — who once sponsored a bill calling for the dissolution of the Department of Energy — as his energy secretary. So we need to look elsewhere — to our senators and representatives — to spearhead the effort. And if they won’t do it, we must make them.

It’s true that former president Jimmy Carter turned the pursuit of alternative energy into something of a third rail in American politics. His courage in telling the truth about our damaging dependence on oil cost him his job — and ensured that no American president would follow his lead. As Al Gore writes in his book Earth in the Balance: “It has become too easy for those of us in public office to evade responsibility for the tough decisions that ought to be made but are instead ignored. . . . The future whispers while the present shouts.” It’s time we shouted louder about what our future will hold if we continue to follow a short-sighted energy policy.

You can call Senator Kerry’s office at (617) 565-8519 to tell him you support his efforts to block oil drilling in the Arctic. Senator Ted Kennedy can be contacted at (617) 565-3170. Either senator can be e-mailed by visiting and clicking through to his Web page. US Representative Joe Moakley can be reached at (617) 428-2000, Michael Capuano can be reached at (617) 621-6208, and Barney Frank can be reached at (617) 332-3920. Any representative can be e-mailed from

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Issue Date: March 8-15, 2001

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