Every Man's Land

Who really owns ANWR?


"People who vote against this today are voting against me," Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) told the Senate in March 2003, "I will not forget it." The subject with which Stevens associates so personally? A vast, largely empty expanse in Alaska and the oil reserves—now off limits—that may lie beneath. Stevens wants the place opened up for drilling, but he lost the fight two years back; this month, he tried slipping a provision into a budget bill, which passed in the Senate but went down in an ugly fight in the House. The battle over ANWR will be decided as different versions of the budget bills are reconciled in committee next month.

ANWR is "a symbol for both sides," the executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League recently told the Washington Post, and as symbols go, it's perhaps not the one environmentalists would have hoped for. Cold, remote, hostile, and housed in the superfluous state of Alaska, it's enough out of sight to put out of mind. Then again, it may be exactly what greens would have wanted, perfectly attuned to the sensitivities of blue-state aesthetic purity: a pristine white canvas, uniquely vulnerable to exploitation by overfed, cigar-wielding oil barons who will smear it with black gold like a kid laying into finger paint.

The showdown reflects decades of public anxiety about the slope; established as a refuge in 1960, locked away by President Carter in 1980, and the site of numerous torturous legislative battles ever since. President Clinton vetoed a drilling proposal in 1995, and President Bush has been trying to poke holes in the tundra since before he was waging war. Explained Senator John Kerry in the last election: Big Oil now calls "the White House their home."

That characterization might be plausible if the oil executives were nearly as excited about tearing up the tundra as the White House. No one knows how much oil lies beneath the slope; this is a faith-based debate from every side, and there is evidence that oil executives themselves aren't true believers. In February, a former engineer for Halliburton told the New York Times: "The enthusiasm of government officials about ANWR exceeds that of industry because oil companies are driven by market forces…and the evidence so far about ANWR is not promising." In December of 2004, Lee R. Raymond, the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, said simply, "I don't know if there is anything in ANWR or not." Said Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton in an interview last weekend: "[oil companies] can produce energy in any place in the world. They are not the strong proponents of opening ANWR."

Norton, in talking point mode, calls ANWR a "national security" issue. But even the optimistic estimates of what lies beneath aren't exciting enough to support fantasies of oil independence. The Department of Energy estimates that, when ANWR oil first comes to market a decade after drilling operations start, Alaska's new bounty will reduce America's oil imports by a grand total of four percentage points.

ANWR has also been pitched as a deficit saving measure, a suggestion promoted by Sen. Stevens, whose recent belt-tightening efforts include bringing Alaska over $1 billion in pork, and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) of $230 million $1 billion in pork, and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) of $230 million Bridge to Nowhere fame. ("I won't jump off of a bridge if we don't win [on ANWR]" Young recently remarked, days before he was officially deprived of an eponymous bridge to jump off.) For a party known to be bad with numbers, the numbers here are particularly suspect– a supposed $2.5 billion in leases, an extremely optimistic projection that represents over 60 times the historic average for land leases in the area.

Once you're over the idea that ANWR is a security issue, it's hard to justify contentious collective ownership of the place—unless you're an environmentalist, and firmly convinced that the fate of every stripmall-free acre in America rests upon its inviolate preservation.

"If we reverse the protection for ANWR, then the protection of the White Mountains in New Hampshire, Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon and all other public spaces becomes meaningless," Rep. Charles Bass(R-N.H.) panicked in a press release last week.

Being places that people actually visit, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon aren't going to get torn up anytime soon. But whether or not the lower 48 states become a vast oil field, the greens' obsession with ANWR belies an ugly shortsightedness—an L.L. Bean vision of environmental purity, in which Northeasterners rally to protect nice places they might just hike someday. ("Has anyone ever been to ANWR?" fake presidential candidate Alan Alda asked on a recent episode of The West Wing.) While greens pour resources into keeping Alaska postcard-pretty, real problems exist in decidedly less remote Louisiana, where hurricanes Katrina and Rita left the coast stained with oil spills. 

ANWR itself, if only a symbol, is a symbol of something more complex than greedy executives or green extremists; it's indicative of an irresolvable tension over publicly held land, uselessly locked away and yet uniquely vulnerable to special interests. An ANWR owned by greens would be used to further environmental interests (possibly by selling oil and channeling the profits toward more pressing concerns); an ANWR owned by Exxon Mobil would be efficiently leveraged to produce oil; an ANWR owned by everybody is just a question mark waiting for the next administration that needs to prove it's serious about something.

Though their budget bills clash on the subject of ANWR, both the Senate and the House agree on this much: The fate of the refuge will be decided by the legislature rather than the market. So Sen. Stevens, take heart: Every anti-Stevens vote is just another vote of confidence in the all-encompassing wisdom of the World's Greatest Deliberative Body. Whether the caribou go down or the drilling freezes up, every Congressman's a winner.

Kerry Howley is an assistant editor of Reason.