Save the Whales, Kill the Economy

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Energy: With Ahab-like determination, environmentalists have once again blocked oil exploration in the American Arctic. They may just have succeeded in putting the American economy on ice.

On Friday, a three-judge U.S. Court of Appeals Court panel in Washington, D.C., struck down the Bush administration's five-year plan for offshore oil and gas leasing off Alaska's northern coast.

The plan was vacated, the panel ruled, because of allegedly insufficient environmental review because its "environmental sensitivity rankings are irrational."

What is irrational is that despite a more than three-decade long record of environmental sensitivity at Prudhoe Bay and elsewhere, and despite booming polar bear, caribou and fish populations, the fiction that oil exploration and environmental protection are somehow incompatible and will decimate Arctic wildlife remains enshrined in law.

The Bush administration had started the process of auctioning off leases in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, Cook Inlet and in the North Aleutian basin. Shell Oil, which spent more than $2 billion to acquire some of the leases, and its partner ConocoPhillips had planned to start drilling in the Chukchi Sea in 2010.

The stakes are enormous. Alaska's Outer Continental Shelf by itself may hold 27 billion barrels of oil and 132 trillion cubic feet of clean-burning natural gas.

That oil is important in its own right, but as Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin told Interior Secretary Ken Salazar when he visited Anchorage, without it the Alaskan pipeline may have to shut down due to reduced flow.

The trans-Alaska oil pipeline now carries only a third of the 2 million barrels a day it carried from Prudhoe Bay and Alaska's North Slope in 1988. "Once the pipeline shuts down, it will mean the end of oil production from the North Slope," Palin said. Trans-Alaska oil pipeline throughput is slipping by about 7% per year.

Alaska's economy is over 80% dependent on oil activity. Aside from keeping the pipeline open, a recent study predicted that OCS activity in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas could produce around 35,000 jobs.

Environmental groups argue drilling would interrupt whale migration, affect native peoples who hunt to live, risk oil spills devastating to the local ecosystem and further threaten polar bear populations already threatened by climate change and melting Arctic ice.

Each year millions of square miles of sea ice melt and refreeze. The amounts vary from season to season. Despite pictures of floating polar bears taken in summer, data reported by the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center show global sea ice levels the same as they were in 1979 when satellite observations began.

As for the polar bears, they're doing fine. Dr. Mitch Taylor, a Canadian polar bear expert, notes they evolved from grizzly bears about 250,000 years ago and developed as a distinct species about 125,000 years ago when natural climate change occurred. He recently put the population currently at around 24,000, up 40% since 1974.

Similar arguments were made when Prudhoe Bay opened in the 1970s. It would hurt all manner of critters, we were warned. Except it didn't.

The caribou herds have thrived. Oil platforms offshore have in effect become condos for fish and all forms of marine life. This argument is currently being used to block development in the frozen tundra of ANWR.

Writing recently in Foreign Affairs, Scott Borgerson, an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted: "The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Norwegian company StatoilHydro estimate that the Arctic holds as much as one-quarter of the world's remaining undiscovered oil and gas deposits."

A recent study by the American Energy Alliance found that developing all our offshore oil resources, including Alaska's, would in coming years add $8.2 trillion in additional GDP, generate $2.2 trillion in total new state and federal tax revenues, create 1.2 million new jobs at high wages, and provide $70 billion in added wages to the economy each year.

But it looks like we're going to have a whale of a time getting it.

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