Drilling in Refuge Won't Help
George W. Bush is determined to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling for oil, but the national interest might be better served by encouraging the development of alternative fuels and wind farms - in particular, assisting in construction of transmission lines to deliver electricity to power-hungry big cities.
Even if the 55-44-1 Republican majority in the Senate were able to overcome objections to drilling in the ANWR, it would be at least a decade before any of the estimated 11 billion barrels of oil beneath the refuge's tundra and ice could begin flowing to the lower 48.
There are several things the U.S. could do in the interim to ease its dependence on costly foreign oil. For starters, the federal government could require automakers to improve overall mileage numbers, and provide larger tax credits to purchasers of hybrid vehicles, eventually replacing gasoline with alternative fuels such as ethanol and hydrogen.
And a Bush energy bill in 2005 could contain loan guarantees to build major power lines that could carry electricity from wind farms to urban centers. And Congress should extend a tax credit of 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour for at least a decade to help stabilize the industry.
There are plenty of wind farms with thousands of giant turbines under development, but the entire Great Plains transmission system needs to be redesigned and redeveloped, in the view of Tom Gray, spokesman for the American Wind Energy Association. Cost is an obstacle: Power lines capable of carrying huge amounts of current can cost up to $500,000 per mile.
The payoff could be huge, however. Experts believe wind energy in 20 years could supply 20 percent of U.S. power needs. And that would be clean energy - no emissions, no environmental damage, and offering financial payoffs to landowners. Wind farms could mesh nicely with hydroelectric dams to maintain a stable supply.
Amory Lovins, a 54-year-old renewable energy evangelist from Colorado, says it is folly to continue dependence on fossil fuels. "The United States can get completely off oil and revitalize its economy by business for profit," says Lovins. "Saving and substituting for oil costs less than buying oil."
Lovins says an investment of $180 billion over 10 years - less than the war in Iraq is costing - would save $70 billion a year by 2025. Lovins' message doesn't sit well with the auto industry. "Many consumers don't want to sacrifice performance, passenger room, cargo space, safety and even towing ability for greater fuel efficiency," says Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
Well, perhaps. But manufacturers already are making and selling hybrid vehicles, which use both gasoline and electricity to provide up to 64 miles per gallon. When gasoline doubles in price, as it certainly will at some time in the future, Lovins' views will seem a lot more reasonable.
The U.S. already is studying alternative fuels, which is a good idea. Whether it also is a good idea to displace the polar bears and caribou and bring "progress" to one of the last remaining true wilderness areas on earth is something that will be harder to resolve.
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