ANWR Apathy

Does anyone really care if oil wells in Alaska disturb the caribou?


"The good news is, the vast majority of the public is on our side."

Gene Karpinski, executive director of the environmental U.S. Public Interest Research Group, made his claim to massive popular support this Tuesday in front of the Capitol. PIRG had assembled a laundry list of environmental activists, including Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and about 50 protestors of the youthful, exuberant, and extremely vocal variety. They gathered to blast the House for considering an energy bill that apes the one favored by the Bush-Cheney crowd. They're especially bothered by controversial provisions that would allow drilling in Alaska's pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

Here's the bad news for Karpinski: His claim betrays a certain lack of what psychologists call "reality-testing." While a disconnect between what we want to be true and what is in fact the case might be troubling to most of us, it's minor concern at best to an activist.

The inability to make a convincing case that the people were with him on this one doesn't mean Karpinski and PIRG don't know how to put on a good show. A crowd of about 50 milled around, some carrying colorful placards (including one that read "Wind power: you'll be blown away," and a poorly rendered reindeer shedding tears). A 12-foot inflatable oil rig, erected with the assistance of an air pump running off an ecologically dubious gas-powered generator, loomed over the madding crowd. There was even an elderly native-Alaskan woman beating a drum. Yet the crowd hardly represented the Middle America for whom Karpinski claimed to speak. Unless, that is, the average Joe is a college sophomore with a nose ring and enough financial security to spend her summer at a D.C. internship rather than working to make fall's tuition payment.

Unfazed by the demographic anomaly of his own rally, Karpinski told reporters that he hopes Congress "will not listen to the polluters but will listen to the public and reject" proposals to drill at ANWR. A National Academy of Sciences report on fuel efficiency standards issued this Monday was a crowd favorite. "The quickest, cheapest, cleanest, safest way to deal with the energy problem is energy efficiency," Karpinski announced, leaning on the study for credibility. He added that any further exploration for coal, oil or natural gas is simply unnecesary because we can conserve our way out of any apparent shortages.

Unfortunately for environmental activists who peg their argument to popular support for government-mandated fuel efficiency, the automobile issue leaves them spinning their wheels. If everyone loves the caribou that frolic in the Alaskan tundra, and if everyone is terrified that global warming is slowly frying the family dog, why are we all driving around in huge, gas-chugging sport-utility vehicles instead of Geo Metros? The National Automobile Dealers Association reports that light trucks (a category that includes trucks, vans, and SUVs) soared from about 33 percent of the American market in 1990 to almost 49 percent by 1999. It turns out that when eco-conscious Americans get rich, they don't buy a Honda Civic and send the dollar difference between a compact car and an SUV to Greenpeace. Increasingly, they beat a path to the Lincoln-Mercury dealer and put their name on the Navigator waiting list. Even the NAS report makes the point: "Few consumers take into account the environmental costs that the use of their vehicle may occasion."

Karpinski, a true zealot, denied any disconnect between what Americans might say in polls (Green is good!) and what they might do at the gas pumps (Fill 'er up!). To maintain such a fiction, Karpinski had to twist himself into more knots than a contortionist. First, he argued that what Americans really want are SUVs that are more fuel-efficient. The problem, he averred, is that money-hungry corporations are too lazy and stupid chasing profits to notice all this unsatisfied demand and just give customers what they want. "Companies don't like to be told what to do," he said. "They want to take their old sweet time… That's why the government needs to step in and set real standards." Karpinski later shifted the focus to what might be called the Theory of Pure Evil. Car makers, goes this line of thinking, could give people perfectly green machines right now but choose not to: "The technology is there," he claimed. "The companies just want to make excess profits." He didn't bother to explain just how automakers will achieve "excess" profits by refusing to supply expensive, green-modified vehicles to a public supposedly desperate to buy such products.

A fellow named Jerry Hood delivered a different sort of body blow to Karpinski's populist-cum-conspiracist argument. Hood is the special advisor for energy policy to Teamsters head James P. Hoffa. Over the past few years, elite environmentalists have been standing shoulder-to-shoulder with union workerts at demonstrations against free trade and globalization. Greens like to showcase the relationship, which they believe shows their connection to the common man: Forget about the '60s, greens say, when construction workers and hippies beat the hell out of each other in public. In the New World Order, goes this line of thinking, environmentalists and working stiffs are on the same side of the barricades. They're attacking the money-hungry multinational corporations that are despoiling nature on the one hand and busting unions on the other.

Unfortunately for the environmentalists, labor is picking a different side in the energy debate. Rather than standing with the PIRGers to denounce the Bush plan, Hood spent Tuesday morning at a press conference heaping praise on Republicans.

Hood, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 959 in Anchorage, got a lot of mileage out of the unexpected partnership. He said that if you had told him six months ago that he would be chumming it up with House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Ok.), and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, "I would suggest that maybe you needed to seek some mental health help." But there he stood, cheek-to-jowl with the Republicans.

Hood also underscored that PIRG and other environmentalists don't have a monopoly on delusional thinking. Hood was arguing that opening ANWR to drilling will create a whopping 735,000 jobs across the country--many of them union, no doubt. If that number doesn't seem convincing, don't worry.

After the meeting, Hood told me the jobs figure came from a 1995 Wharton Business School study. He was unsure of the methodology, but he said it didn't matter: Even if they were off by 200,000, it would still mean more than 500,000 jobs. (He didn't venture a guess about what it meant if the estimates were off by, say, 730,000.) Besides, he had his own homespun statistics: "When you start talking, in addition to [opening ANWR], building 1,500 power plants and the other infrastructure that Secretary Chao [has] talked about, you're talking about creating millions of jobs in this country." So 735,000 is really a low-ball estimate anyway. And that's probably not even counting the caribou clean-up crews that might need to be hired when the drills start driving north to Alaska.

With both pro- and anti-drillers steeped in such self-serving exaggerations, it's no wonder why the House seems undecided about pending legislation to start punching holes in the ANWR. And why the Senate is gearing up for an even tighter legislative battle, if a bill on the matter ever actually makes it into the upper chamber.

While the legislative future on arctic drilling may be obscure, this much seems crystal clear: Regardless of the ANWR debate, the American people are solidly behind SUVs.