Don’t Drill the Arctic: Renewable Energy is Safer, Cleaner, More Secure

By William C.G. Burns

Editor’s note: This essay ran in The Columbus Dispatch on November 1, 2001 and in The Monterey County Herald on December 2, 2001. It was also published in several regional papers in the Midwest.

The terror attacks of September 11 have brought the vulnerabilities of modern America into stunning relief. Our airports, airplanes and office buildings were far more open to attack then most imagined. And, according to many policy makers and scientists, so is our oil-based economy.

While the federal government has responded admirably to the immediate threat of attacks against our pipelines and pumping stations, on the larger question of how we power our nation, it is moving in the wrong direction. Its proposed energy plan, now being considered by Congress, is filled with ill-considered ideas, such as drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and cutting funding for renewable energy research and energy efficiency programs.

Reducing our demand for imported oil is certainly a laudable goal, but we can’t drill our way to energy independence. The reason is simple: America has, by best estimates, only 3 percent of the world’s oil reserves. And the amount present in the Arctic wildlife refuge is only a tiny fraction of that. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there is only a six-month supply of easily recoverable oil under the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and analysts have predicted that it will take five to seven years to tap.

While drilling in the Arctic refuge will do little to reduce our need for foreign oil, it will seriously damage an irreplaceable piece of our national heritage. The Arctic wildlife refuge is the last 5 percent of Alaska’s north coast not currently open to oil exploration and it plays an essential role in the Arctic’s web of life. Drilling operations could imperil habitat for hundreds of animals and permanently harm a national treasure.

The good news is there are a host of ways to enhance our energy security without sacrificing our precious places.

Cost-effective measures, such as improving the energy efficiency of our homes and offices, could cut our national energy use by one-third over the next decade – saving, in a single year, twice the amount of oil available in the Arctic refuge.

A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists also concluded that we can meet 20 percent of our nation’s electricity needs within 20 years using a variety of renewable energy sources and energy-saving measures. This would save in 20 years more oil than can be easily taken from the Arctic refuge in 60 years.

Increasing automobile fuel-efficiency to an average of 40 miles per gallon would save three million barrels of oil, more than our daily imports from the Persian Gulf. This goal is economically viable and technically within reach. It is thus regrettable that Congress recently rejected legislation to modestly increase fuel-efficency standards.

Moving towards renewable and diffuse energy sources, such as solar energy, would also reduce the threat of terrorist attacks on major power infrastructure, such as pipelines and refineries. The vulnerability of this infrastructure was highlighted a few weeks ago when a deranged gunman fired several bullets into a pipeline connected to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, releasing nearly 300,000 gallons of crude oil and shutting down shipment of 17 percent of the nation’s oil production.

Speeding the transition to renewable energy can dramatically reduce our dependence on imported oil, decrease potential terrorist
targets and protect our natural resources. Instead of cutting spending on renewable research and drilling precious places, our elected officials should move the United States away from fossil fuels and towards clean, renewable sources of energy.

The Pacific Institute is dedicated to protecting our natural world, encouraging sustainable development and improving global security through independent scientific research and policy analysis.

William C.G. Burns is an Affiliate with the Pacific Institute and Senior Editor of the Journal of International Water Law Policy.