By MARTIN SCHRAM
Scripps Howard News Service
August 10, 2006
- Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., March 10, 2005
For years, assurances of environmentally safe oil exploration in Alaska's Arctic wilderness gushed all over the nation's capital, creating a slick that stretched from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other.
President Bush promised in 2005 that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR in Wash-speak) can be drilled in "environmentally responsible ways ... with little impact on the land or wildlife."
Comes now the news that has put us all in touch with the environmentally ungentle side of oil exploration. The quick reaction is to say that this was bad news. But we'll see here that the bad news may indeed be good news. Because it should force Americans to slide past the slick and focus on the real choices we must make in an age when energy independence is a national security imperative - yet safeguarding our environment is also vital.
BP, the oil company that has led the industry in ads promoting its green policies and quest for alternative fuels, acknowledged Monday that massive corrosion has forced it to shut down and replace 16 miles of pipeline in Alaska's North Slope. The field is the nation's biggest producer of oil - its 400,000 barrels a day are 8 percent of U.S. production. The site is also the western next-door neighbor of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that the Bush administration, the oil industry and many in Congress want to open for drilling.
Like so many Washington stories, the news of big oil trouble in Alaska surfaced because of a leak. It was, by Washington standards, a small, crude leak. Last March, black oil was discovered to be spreading over a frozen road on the North Slope. An estimated 270,000 gallons oil had leaked over the frozen tundra before the oil could be shut off. Indeed, once the oil spill was discovered, it reportedly took the experts three days to find the source of it - a quarter-inch hole in the pipeline.
Shortly after that news leaked, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to open ANWR for drilling. And that made President Bush proud: "I applaud today's vote in the House to allow for environmentally responsible energy exploration in a small part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A reliable domestic supply of energy is important to America's security and prosperity."
The measure is now before the Senate. But it is not at all certain that the latest news - about widespread corrosion that forced BP to shut down the Prudhoe Bay oil field - will prompt the Senate to agree that now is the perfect time to do more drilling and build more pipelines in the Arctic refuge.
Senate Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who coined the concept of "environmentally gentle" oil exploration in ANWR a year ago, was among the senators who were displeased (see also: embarrassed) by BP's latest disclosure. "Extensive corrosion to a pipeline of such importance to our economy is unacceptable," Domenici said in a statement. "I urge BP's management to address swiftly this very serious infrastructure problem."
The problem with that problem is that BP is now being investigated - by the Bush administration - for its apparent failure to move swiftly and successfully to detect, assess and fix the problems that became publicly known five months ago. The Environmental Protection Agency opened a criminal investigation into whether the company was negligent in managing its pipeline, according to The Washington Post.
But while the conventional wisdom is that this has been a week of bad news for big oil, it is possible that it can also be seen as good news. For big oil and all of us. For now we know we need to ignore the slickmeisters who promote the Snow White notion of environmental gentleness of oil development in the Arctic wilderness. Despite all the past pledges, we now must confront the fact that whenever there are pipelines, leaks can happen. Just as we now know that when oil is shipped over oceans, Exxon Valdez can happen.
What we need now are leaders who will tell us what they really believe: That our energy independence and economic gain is so important that they want to drill in the Arctic refuge - even if it results in leaks and spills that damage a pristine wilderness that most Americans will never see.
Tough truth on ANWR: Our leaders need to tell it before they drill it.
E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com
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