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Friday, April 29, 2005

Congress OKs budget -- with ANWR funding

The House and Senate both passed a new federal budget late Thursday that includes a provision to find an additional $2.4 billion in revenue. The unspoken subtext is that this money will come from drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Critics called the strategy a "scam" crafted to divert the public's attention from the controversial drilling plan.

Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, had this to say:
“In the end, the most telling thing is that the Republican leadership, with their backroom budget scam, didn’t have the guts to come out and say they were opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil. They know that broad majorities of the American public disagree with them and their oil industry allies on plans to open the biological heart of the Arctic Refuge to oil drills.

“Make no mistake about it; a vote for this budget is a vote to open the Arctic Refuge to oil drilling... This budget includes open-ended instructions that allow the Republican leadership to fast-track Arctic Refuge drilling, avoiding the normal legislative checks and balances. ”

The Senate voted 52-47 to approve the budget. The House voted 214-211. These surprisingly slim margins suggest there was a lot more controversy in the $2.6 trilling federal spending plan. One of the biggest bones of contention was Medicaid spending.

The close votes also mean drilling supporters will have to proceed cautiously to keep ANWR drilling alive. The budget bill is not the final word on drilling. Congress must still approve specific legislation to legalize drilling in the refuge, which would then become part of a budget reconciliation bill to be approved later.

That's why Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, a standard-bearer on ANWR drilling, is urging her Republican colleagues not to change Congressional rules to prevent Democrats from filibustering the president's judicial nominees. The so-called "nuclear option" to get conservative judges appointed would prompt Democrats to shut down Congress through other procedural moves, which would kill ANWR drilling.

"This is one of the reasons I have urged caution on the judicial nominees," Murkowski told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. "Any time you have an opportunity for a vote, it's another potential bump in the road."

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Thursday, April 28, 2005

Budget bill said to be missing ANWR language

The Associated Press reports this afternoon that the federal budget bill agreed to by a House and Senate conference committee does not include specific language relating to ANWR drilling. However, it does include a $2.4 billion chunk of revenue that matches expected revenue from the initial round of drilling leases in the refuge.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he will include revenues from oil lease sales in the refuge to help meet the budget requirements. Such a move essentially would authorize drilling there.

But it is not certain the House will follow the Senate's lead. A spokesman for Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chair of the House Resources Committee, said Pombo has not decided whether to turn to the refuge to meet budget obligations.

House leaders apparently want to limit the number of times the issue comes up for a vote. They are fearful of losing support among moderate Republicans -- perhaps an indication of faltering support overall for drilling in the refuge.

The AP reports the House may wait until negotiations with the Senate on a final budget reconciliation plan - probably in the fall - before agreeing to include the drilling proposal. This would require only one House floor vote about the refuge as part of the budget process.

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More on Inupiat indecision...

We previously discussed signs that native Inupiat villagers in Kaktovik are having second thoughts about supporting oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge surrounding their town. Link.

Now comes another story from Reuters that adds fuel to the fire.

The piece quotes Robert Thompson, a local tour operator who organized the recent petition drive opposing refuge development. That petition drew 57 signatures in a town of 284 people. Thompson also notes that in the last local election on the ANWR drilling issue, only 98 people voted, "so presumably if there were an election, 57 people could conceivably be a majority," Thompson said.

Support is wavering because Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski advocates of offshore drilling. Residents have long opposed offshore drilling because it could interfere with traditional whale hunting.

Murkowski ended some no-leasing restrictions on Beaufort Sea sites in state waters considered important to Inupiat whalers. He also celebrated a March 30 federal lease sale in which Shell Oil acquired drilling rights in the Beaufort Sea directly offshore of Kaktovik.

Kaktovik leaders have said they would only support drilling as long as it did not threaten their livelihood.

"We can support development of the (coastal plain), provided it is done with certain conditions met, conditions that assure we are empowered by law to protect our interests, including our access to those lands and waters on which we depend," the mayor and city council said in an April 19 letter to Alaska's Congressional delegation.

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World waits for news on budget bill

House and Senate leaders are debating a federal budget bill this week that will decide ANWR's fate. A conference committee meeting yesterday produced little news about the refuge, but did indicate that the two houses of Congress are getting close to deciding a budget both can agree on.

Republican Sen Pete Dominici (N.M.) said he was "confident that there will be no significant change in the instruction to the energy committee -- the allowance, the order, the mandate, whatever you call it -- for us to produce an ANWR proposal that will become law.” If that makes any sense. Link.

Senate Republicans put ANWR drilling in the budget bill to protect it from filibuster by Democrats. The bill's language calls for the government to collect about $2.5 billion from ANWR oil lease sales through 2010. The Senate would still have to approve specific legislation later to open
ANWR to drilling, but having that language in the budget bill could ease procedural obstacles for that second step.

The House, meanwhile, approved an energy bill that includes ANWR drilling, but has yet to adopt a budget bill containing that goal. But drilling supporters say that's just because Republicans in the House were waiting to see if senators could make the language stick in their bill, according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

A final budget bill could pass both houses of Congress by the end of this week.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Rebel shareholders pressure ChevronTexaco

A group of shareholders pressured ChevronTexaco at its annual meeting today to produce an honest accounting of potential environmental damages should ANWR be opened to oil drilling.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that activist shareholders presented two resolutions at the meeting in San Ramon, Calif.: One asking the company to spend more time and money cleaning up a corner of the Ecuadoran Amazon where Texaco once pumped oil, the other seeking a written report on the environmental damage that could be caused by drilling in sensitive areas, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The company's board, not surprisingly, asked shareholders to reject both requests. And when it came time for the vote, 80 percent towed the company line and rejected the ANWR-related resolution (the Amazon resolution was also rejected). Yet supporters nonetheless took it as a hopeful sign that 7.7 percent of shareholders supported the ANWR resolution.

“No issue has animated our members more than protecting the fragile Arctic Refuge,” said Larry Fahn, president of the Sierra Club, which filed the ANWR-related resolution. The activists had powerful allies on their side, including the immense state pension funds of California and New York. “I am pleased that so many ChevronTexaco shareholders recognize that good environmental decisions make good economic sense."

ChevronTexaco and BP drilled an exploratory well in ANWR 20 years ago and would likely be first at the table to begin tapping oil in the refuge if drilling is approved in Congress.

For supporters, the resolutions are a way to focus the company's attention on environmental concerns they believe have been swept aside in the search for oil.

"It just raises the urgency of the issue inside the corporation," Shelley Alpern, vice president of Trillium Asset Management, told the Chronicle. The firm, one of many specializing in socially conscious investing, submitted the resolution on Ecuador.

Here's a link to the full text of the ANWR resolution: Link.

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Maine senators targeted in budget vote

Maine's two Republican senators are said to be the target of intense lobbying efforts ahead of a vote expected this week on the Senate budget bill that includes ANWR drilling.

The Portland (Me.) Press Herald reports that both Sen. Olympia Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins are on the fence. Snowe previously voted against the preliminary budget bill, while Collins supported it. Both oppose ANWR drilling, but it's unclear if they will oppose the entire budget package as a result. Collins, for instance, is quoted as saying that she supports the budget because it includes tuition grants for college students in her state.

"I'd have to look at the budget as a whole," Collins said. "I'm going to continue my efforts to defeat drilling. It would not help our energy problems and it's one of the last unspoiled wilderness areas that we have."

Collins told the paper she is still trying to persuade Republican leaders to remove the drilling issue from the final budget.

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Monday, April 25, 2005

Whistleblower returns with a warning

Chuck Hamel has been flying under the radar for a while. A former British Petroleum employee and longtime whistleblower on Alaskan oil companies, he has revealed a number of safety and pollution problems on the North Slope that the drillers have tried to keep quiet.

Well, apparently he's back in action now and warning that if drilling is allowed in ANWR, the refuge could be in for a devastating oil spill on par with the Exxon Valdez accident unless state and federal officials get a lot more rigorous in patrolling the drillers. checks in with this story on Hamel's latest crusade, which includes an April 15 letter to Sen. Pete Dominici, R-N.M., chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and an ardent ANWR drilling supporter.

Hamel's letter claims there have been three oil spills on the North Slope between March and early April.

"You obviously are unaware of the cheating by some producers and drilling companies," Hamel said in the letter. "Your official Senate tour (of Alaska in March) was masked by the orchestrated 'dog and pony show' provided you at the new Alpine Field, away from the real world of the Slope's dangerously unregulated operations."

Writer Jason Leopold reports that Hamel successfully uncovered major spills of oil-laced "drilling mud" on the North Slope by BP and Nabors Alaska Drilling as recently as December 2004. One of these involved the intentional injection of 2,000 gallons of drilling fluids beneath the ice to avoid the cost of proper disposal. Another was a "gusher" of fluids that shot 85 feet into the air and sprayed across the tundra.

The companies failed to report these spills, itself a violation of the law. Even worse, in most of these cases, state and federal officials let the oil companies off the hook with a slap on the wrist.

“I am going to throw a hiccup into the ANWR legislation,” Hamel said. “Until these oil companies clean up their act they can’t drill in ANWR because they are spilling oil in the North Slope.”

(NOTE: Hamel formerly ran the website, which appears to be defunct now and has no relation to this blog.)

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Poll: U.S. environmental conditions worsening

A new Gallup poll finds that more Americans rate the nation's environmental conditions as only "fair" or worse,
and 63 percent now say conditions are worsening, an increase of 6 percent compared to a similar poll in 2001.

The poll, cited here, was conducted in collaboration with CNN and USA Today. It involved phone interviews with 1,004 American adults between Mar. 7 and Mar. 10, 2005. Margin of error is 3 percent.

Results showed that only 37 percent now rate U.S. environmental conditions as "good," 48 percent say conditions are "fair" and 10 percent selected "poor." These are all increases from 41 percent, 47 percent and 6 percent, respectively, compared to the 2001 poll.

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Sunday, April 24, 2005

Grizzlies confront polar bears on Beaufort coast

Originally uploaded by BlogAdmin.
The Anchorage Daily News reports today on new research that shows polar bears and grizzlies are interacting more on the Beaufort Sea coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And the more aggressive grizzlies often come out the winner.

The upshot is another threat to polar bears, the scarcer of the two bruin species. They've already been forced ashore more often due to early melting sea ice, likely caused by global warming. Now they must confront grizzlies who have left their usual inland hunting areas to feed on whale carcasses left behind by native hunters from the village of Kaktovik. Another threat to polar bears is oil development on manmade gravel islands built at Prudhoe Bay.

Bear experts have recently spent hundreds of hours documenting these bear interactions. During the encounters, grizzlies usually succeed in driving polar bears off the whale carcasses. The accompanying photo shows a female grizzly and her two cubs feeding on a whale carcass on Barter Island near Kaktovik in 2003.

Polar bears normally feed mostly on seals that they hunt from floating sea ice.

"There are more bears on the shore for longer periods of time in the fall," said federal wildlife biologist Susi Miller. "It looks like the use of the coastal habitat is increasing, and it may be linked to climate change."

The situation hasn't been helped by native subsistence hunters creating large "whale dumps" along the coast where bones and other waste are left to rot. In effect, they're creating garbage bears just like those that became a problem years ago at garbage dumps in Yellowstone National Park.

In February, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect Alaskan polar bears under the Endangered Species Act.

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Saturday, April 23, 2005

Thinking twice in Kaktovik

This is a big deal.

The Washington Post in a story today explores a "small but significant" shift in opinion in the Arctic town of Kaktovik. Long a stalwart supporter of ANWR drilling for the money and jobs it would bring, the town within the Arctic Refuge has shown signs lately of an opinion shift.

A number of local protesters greeted touring politicians at the airstrip last month by chanting slogans and waving signs and banners urging protection for the refuge. That, apparently, has never happened before. Also, a recent petition against drilling drew the signatures of 57 of Kaktovik's 188 adults. Kaktovik Mayor Lon Sonsalla told the Post he is no longer certain where the majority stands.

Driving the change is concern that ANWR drilling would lead to offshore drilling, which could compromise the traditional whale hunts that are a vital tradition to the Inupiak people of Kaktovik. These fears have been fanned by comments from Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski, who wants to offer drilling leases in state waters alongside ANWR but said those leases won't be attractive without the ability to attach to onshore facilities.

Locals have also become concerned about the impact on caribou, which they also hunt.

"I've never really taken a stand before -- I've always supported the community position," said grocery store owner Carla Sims Kayotuk. "But I changed by mind this year. ... They want to do the drilling where my family goes to hunt."

Sheldon Brower also changed his opinion after pondering what drilling could do to the refuge. He said hunting and roaming in the refuge is "like going to church for me." Drilling in the refuge, he said, will "destroy our culture completely. ... Just the thought of it makes me sick to my stomach."

Kaktovik locals have no official say in the drilling decision, but their approval has been a central motivating force for drilling proponents. It appears this leg of support may be turning to sawdust beneath them.

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Ben & Jerry's delivers 'Baked Alaska' in protest

To protest the House energy bill and its provision to open ANWR to oil drilling, activist ice cream makers Ben & Jerry's delivered an 1,100 pound Baked Alaska desert to the U.S. Capitol on Friday. Made from 3,600 scoops of ice cream, it was apparently meant to symbolize the folly of the drilling decision.

Naturally, not everyone was amused. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, noted that it must have taken a lot of energy to make the massive desert.

"This stunt goes to show that Ben and Jerry's does not have a firm appreciation for our county's energy crisis - or the very significant role oil plays in our daily lives," Stevens said. "I suggest that they use a horse and treadmill to run their ice cream machines if they are really concerned about decreasing our nation's dependence on fossil fuels."

Further calling into questions its motives, Ben & Jerry's also is selling a special "Baked Alaska Sundae" at select stores through the Earth Day weekend.

I'm sure Ben & Jerry's stunts have nice symbolic value. But I don't think it helps anybody to make a joke out of a very serious policy decision. Why does everything always have to be a joke?

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Friday, April 22, 2005

Kiss your lifestyle goodbye

By now we all know that the House approved the Republican energy bill yesterday, including a provision to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I will not waste your time repeating or attempting to analyze these events, which are being picked over extensively in the media as we speak.

The House bill, in any case, is so loaded with gratuitous prizes for the oil industry that it is unlikely to proceed intact through the Senate. It's inclusion of ANWR drilling alone is enough to ensure that.

Instead, I offer food for thought on the big picture, thanks to this timely article in the UK's Guardian newspaper.

The piece discusses a meeting last week that "ultra-conservative Swiss financiers" requested with retired petroleum geologist Colin Campbell, who helped found the London-based Oil Depletion Analysis Centre. An industry man, he saw problems on the horizon with the world's dependence on fossil fuels and launched the organization to draw attention to the issue. Campbell has unique insight on global petroleum reserves, having seen the situation in detail from the inside.

In short, he said, the phenomenon of "Peak Oil" is about to befall us, bringing shortages, economic chaos, and other unspeakable hardships.

"The first half of the oil age now closes," says Campbell. "The second half now dawns, and will be marked by the decline of oil and all that depends on it, including financial capital."

Campbell goes on to confess that while working for industry, he "never once told the truth" about an oil discovery, because his employer was always competing for money and wanted the world to believe it held the biggest piece of the pie.

Adds Bill Powers, editor of Canadian Energy Viewpoint: "The US government does not want to admit the reality of the situation. Dr Campbell's thesis, and those of others like him, are becoming the mainstream."

Indeed, the House energy bill gives only a token glance at the future while throwing billions in subsidies at the oil industry -- during a time when the industry is posting record profits thanks to high prices at the pump.

"We should be worried. Time is short and we are not even at the point where we admit we have a problem," said Chris Skrebowski, editor of Petroleum Review, published by the Energy Institute in London.

The Guardian piece is full of truth-telling gems like this and is worth reading in its entirety. If you can stomach it.

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Thursday, April 21, 2005

The ANWR amendment: How they voted

A total of 29 Republicans and one Independent joined Democrats in the failed vote on the amendment to strip ANWR from the energy bill yesterday (known as Amendment #3). Those 30 are:

Bartlett (Md.), Bass (N.H.), Boehlert (N.Y.), Bradley (N.H.), Castle (Del.), Davis (Va.), Ehlers (Mich.), Ferguson (N.J.), Fitzpatrick (Penn.), Freylinghuysen (N.J.), Gerlach (Penn.), Gilchrest (Md.), Inglis (S.C.), Johnson (Conn.), Johnson (Ill.), Kennedy (Minn.), Kirk (R.I.), Leach (Iowa), LoBiondo (N.J.), Petri (Wisc.,) Ramstad (Minn.), Reichert (Wash.), Sanders (I-Vt.), Saxton (N.J.), Schwarz (Mich.), Sensenbrenner (Wisc.), Shays (Conn.), Simmons (Conn.), Smith (N.J.), Walsh (N.Y.).

Meanwhile, 30 Democrats defected and voted with Republicans against the amendment (thus voting to keep ANWR drilling in the bill):

Baca (Calif.), Berry (Ark.), Bishop (Ga.), Boren (Okla.), Boyd (Fla.), Brady (Penn.), Cardoza (Calif.), Costa (Calif.), Cramer (Ala.), Cuellar (Tex.), Davis (Ala.), Davis (Tenn.), Edwards (Tex.), Green (Ala.), Green (Tex.), Herseth (S.D.), Hinojosa (Tex.), Jefferson (La.), Kanjorski (Penn.), Melancon (Ala.), Mollohan (W.V.), Murhta (Penn.), Ortiz (Tex.), Peterson (Minn.), Reyes (Tex.), Ross (Ark.), Skelton (Mo.), Tanner (Tenn.), Taylor (Miss.) Towns (N.Y.).

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House keeps ANWR drilling in energy bill

The House of Representatives late Wednesday turned away an amendment to strip ANWR drilling from its version of the energy bill by a vote of 231-200.

(Ignore the headline in the cited Seattle Times story: The full energy bill had not been approved at that writing. A final vote is expected today.)

The amendment was offered by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who said ANWR drilling does nothing to reduce the nation's fuel consumption, which is, of course, the essence of the nation's energy problem.

The House also rejected an amendment to require automakers to increase fuel economy to a fleet average of 33 miles per gallon over the next decade. The vote on this was even more resoundingly negative: 254-177.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., who put forth the defeated fuel-economy amendment, called the energy bill "a farce." He said it will "increase the deficit, weaken our economy, compromise our national security and endanger our environment."

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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Editorial overview: Bashing the energy bill

Here's a sampling of opinion from recent newspaper editorials on ANWR and the Republican energy bill:

Detroit Free Press
"The bill does little to help average Americans while it dishes up tax breaks, other subsidies and drilling privileges to current energy producers. It is protectionist pork at a time when every dollar and every tactic ought to be devoted to easing the country's dependence on foreign oil... This backward-thinking policy would position America poorly for years to come."

Toledo Blade
"Over in the Energy and Commerce Committee, GOP leaders pushed through an amendment to prohibit strict efficiency standards for ceiling fans that have been set or proposed in a dozen states. The measure was sponsored by Rep. Nathan Deal, Republican of Georgia, at the behest of Atlanta-based Home Depot, which sells … a whole lot of ceiling fans. ... Conspicuous by its absence is any provision to spur badly needed conservation by requiring better gas mileage on new cars and trucks."

N.Y. Times (subscription?)
"Step outside the White House and Congress, and one hears a chorus of voices begging for something far more robust and forward-looking than the trivialities of this energy bill. It is a strikingly bipartisan chorus, too, embracing environmentalists, foreign policy hawks and other unlikely allies."

All these editorials (and more) are opposed to ANWR drilling. I don't post this on the pretense that these opinions will make a difference. Indeed, I've heard it said that many politicians consider a newspaper's endorsement a "death knell" at the polls. That's not because newspapers are unable to pick a winner. It's because newspapers tend to speak for the people, and they tend to have future well-being in mind.

Politicians, on the other hand, tend to speak for whomever packs their wallets the fattest. I think the energy bill reflects that.

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In Focus: Polygonal ground

Originally uploaded by BlogAdmin.
This photo shows an ANWR land feature called polygonal ground. It forms on the Coastal Plain in the freeze-and-thaw process, creating a natural depression that fills with meltwater, surrounded by a berm. Lush vegetation grows on these berms, creating protected cover and forage for snow geese, tundra swans and other waterfowl that flock to the refuge in summer.

In winter, this area looks a lot like those photos of barren, windswept ice that are spread with vigor by drilling advocates to suggest that ANWR is a "wasteland." But in summer, the area transforms into this vast network of fragile wetlands, teeming with life.

Areas like this could be laced with gravel drilling pads, roads and pipelines if drilling is allowed in the refuge.

Photo source: USFWS

House takes up energy bill today

The full U.S. House of Representatives today begins debate on the energy bill, officially dubbed the Energy Policy Act of 2005, H.R. 6. The bill includes provisions to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, previously detailed here.

Democrats are expected to try to amend the bill in ways previously rejected by Republicans, including removing the ANWR drilling provisions and requiring automakers to improve fleet-average miles-per-gallon in the cars they produce. Another controversial provision is a Republican proposal to exempt oil companies from liability for cleaning up soil and water contamination from the gasoline additive MTBE, saving them billions of dollars.

The bill is filled with a long list of other bad policies. But even if the House does adopt it, which is likely, it shouldn't be viewed as a death blow for ANWR. The Senate version of the bill, to be considered in May, is not likely to include ANWR drilling because it would be subject to filibuster by Democrats. That's why the Senate voted March 16 to include ANWR drilling in the budget bill instead, where it is exempt from filibuster.

A vote by the full House on the energy bill is expected Thursday.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2005

C-Span goes live with Bartlett on 'Peak Oil'

Just before the notorious March 16 Senate vote on ANWR, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., gave a lengthy and revealing speech before Congress on 'Peak Oil.' If you've been living in a cave for the past couple months, this is the concept that global oil extraction has reached its peak and will begin to decline. It may have happened already, but most analysts seem to think it will occur within the next two years.

Bartlett's talk raised eyebrows, not just because he's a Republican, but because he knows what he's talking about. He is an award-winning scientist who got into the business of building solar-powered homes. He drives a hybrid car. And he states on his website that he is opposed to drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, saying it "should be preserved for future, wiser use."

Tonight, Barlett gives a second speech on the subject, this one focused on the need to rapidly develop alternative energy sources. C-Span plans to carry it live at 9 p.m. EST. You can watch a live webcast of it here:

Needless to say, I think this will be worth watching.

You can view a webcast of Bartlett's first speech on his website. For the full-text transcript, check out Energy Bulletin. For a summary, check out this post by Green Car Congress.

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ANWR oil could go to Asia

The Seattle Times checks in with a timely story today on the history and potential of Alaskan oil exports. We've discussed this here before, but Times reporter Warren Cornwall provides some good research.

In short, there's no legal guarantee at this point that if the Arctic Refuge is drilled for oil, that oil will stay in the U.S. Virtually all Alaskan oil now goes to U.S. refineries on the West Coast. But Cornwall reports that those refineries may have to be expanded to handle the additional oil that ANWR could generate. That seems unlikely, since oil companies might be unwilling to make that investment with global output on the decline.

The result could be that oil companies would want to market that oil elsewhere. The likely customer would be Asian countries, including China.

"It is possible if they were to find a lot of oil in ANWR — and once they start drilling there they may move outside that little area — that the oil couldn't go to any place in the United States," said energy analyst Philip Verleger.

It "could happen," adds Courtney Schikora Boone, a spokeswoman for Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. "But it would not be something we would push for because we consider domestic oil production in the United States to be a national-security issue. We believe our dependence on foreign oil makes us weaker in the world."

Nor did she say it is something they would forbid.

In 1995, Stevens led a successful effort to overturn a ban on exports from oil carried by the Trans-Alaska pipeline. This led to only modest foreign exports of U.S. crude, according to the Times article, totalling just under 100 million barrels over five years. At the time, Stevens called the ban on exports "unconstitutional and unjust."

Which gives you a pretty clear idea about where his thinking is at.

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Alaska to boost lobbyist support by $1.2 million

In a debate that lasted a combined eight minutes in both houses of the state Legislature, Alaska politicians on two committees approved a new subsidy of $1.2 million for Arctic Power, the chief lobbying group behind oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

If approved by the full Legislature, the new amount would bring the total taxpayer subsidy for Arctic Power to about $10 million when "past years" are included, to use the vague language employed by the Anchorage Daily News. This funding makes up the majority of the lobby's operating revenue. The proposed new funding from the state is about five times greater than Arctic Power raised in donations "in recent years," according to more vague language in the News.

There were only token objections, and yet this was interesting. Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, complained about the $31,000 monthly that Arctic Power spends to maintain its Anchorage office. The lobby said this money pays for rent, the salaries of three staffers, mailings, tour coordination and web site maintenance. But if you pay attention to the group's websites, you will see they are updated infrequently (to put it mildly).

Weyhrauch also questioned whopping monthly payments of $9,350 and $7,500 to two Arctic Power contract workers in Washington and Anchorage. "I don't see much accountability for all this money we're dumping," he said.

I guess the state and taxpayers figure this is money well spent. Indeed, it is but a tiny fraction of the cash splashed out in annual "Permanent Fund" payments to state residents. Under the state's unusual oil-royalty distribution program, last year every resident of the state received a check for $920, totalling about $600 million.

If the new $1.2 million in state funding is approved, Arctic Power plans to spend $600,000 on lobbying in Washington, $300,000 in other "key states," and $72,000 trying to win the hearts of labor unions.

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Monday, April 18, 2005

Wilderness: A sanctuary of freedom

I was moved by this commentary by Dale Allen Pfeiffer on wilderness. It may be the most relevant and valuable description of wilderness that we could ask for in these times.

Henry David Thoreau argued, in the spiritual sense, that "In wilderness is the preservation of the world." In more recent times, others describe wilderness as an essential seedbed of biological diversity that will prove valuable to science as we plunder everything else. Both are true.

Pfeiffer goes one step further in his "Ode to the Remaining Wilderness." He calls wilderness our "sanctuary of freedom." It is a haven we should return to in body and spirit to escape our current definition of freedom, which, he argues sadly, is the shallow freedom to consume. This has compromised the original definition, which was simply the freedom to do as we please.

"In the American lexicon, freedom has come to mean the freedom of corporations to generate profit and the freedom of the public to consume. Freedom is measured by the number of dollars you generate, and the number of dollars you spend. ... In reality, the amount of freedom you have is inverse to the number of possessions you own."

A geologist and science editor at, Pfeiffer argues that the plan to tap oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other wild places is the ultimate expression of this freedom to consume. But he calls this a "gobbling of crumbs" that imperils our true values, long forgotten by our runaway retail economy.

"It is my contention here that the wilderness is the true sanctuary of freedom, and that this is its greatest value. In this respect, the wilderness could truly be called the soul of America, the soul which gave the native peoples their ways, the soul which called to the frontiersmen, the mountainmen and the explorers, the soul which ultimately gave birth to the declaration of independence ... So long as there remains some wilderness where people could potentially go (and some few do) to escape the ties that bind, then the whisper of freedom is still alive."

There's a lot more to Pfeiffer's essay, including a pretty good description of the fallacy of ANWR drilling. In truth, he could have used a firm editor, and he also uses the essay to plug his self-published books (hey, we all gotta put food on the table).

But still, I think his is the best description yet for why ANWR matters to those who work to preserve it, and why it should matter to us all.

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12-year-old: Pump up your tires to save ANWR

While the rest of us sit around jawing about ANWR, Savannah Rose Walters is doing something simple and profound. The dimpled 12-year-old has launched a campaign to get drivers to inflate their tires properly after learning this will save more fuel than drilling for oil in the Arctic Refuge could produce.

Her campaign, called "Pump 'em Up," even includes a website, where others can get involved by downloading a flier to stick under windshield wipers or hand out in parking lots.

"Even if you don't care about the Arctic, if you pump up your tires, you won't have to buy as much gas, and we'll all breathe cleaner air," she recently told the Tampa Tribune. The inspiration for her campaign was planted in a lesson on the Arctic environment in her second-grade class several years ago. If only we could all be so inspired at such a young age, the world would be a better place.

And Savannah is right, of course. Properly inflating your tires will save gas and money. Adding a little extra air will save you even more. Automakers set recommended tire pressures on the low end to ensure a comfortable ride. But most tires can easily handle extra pressure (the recommended maximum pressure is printed on every tire's sidewall). If you can handle a little more road feel, you could boost your mpg by a couple points simply by adding extra pressure.

As Savannah notes on her website, the U.S. Energy Department reported in 1995 that underinflated tires waste 4 million gallons of gasoline daily in the U.S. alone. That's way more fuel than even the most wildly optimistic estimates for production volume from ANWR.

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Friday, April 15, 2005

25,000+ sign boycott petition

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and her "PAC for a Change" have begun a petition campaign to organize support for a consumer boycott of any companies that eventually drill for oil in the Arctic Refuge. She claims on the PAC's website that more than 25,000 people have signed the petition and agreed to participate in a future boycott.

I think that's a significant number. More than I expected, at least. And that's only since the petition drive was launched three weeks ago.

But part of me questions whether a boycott of this sort will really work. Or if people will really follow through. I mean, how many people are really ABLE to give up oil? It gets to the essence of our oil-addicted economy and culture.

There are two issues here, as I see it. First, any oil coming out of ANWR will probably get moved through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, where it will mingle with other oil drilled on the North Slope, outside ANWR. Even if we could track the ANWR oil in that pipeline, it may not be sold at the retail level by the company that drills for it.

So if, say, ChevronTexaco is the company that taps ANWR, they could sell the crude to BP, which then sells it as gasoline at its own stations and maybe also to independent retailers. So you go and you say, "I'm not buying gasoline from ChevronTexaco," and then you go and tank up at BP instead. You may be hurting ChevronTexaco a teeny bit, but you're still buying that ANWR oil. You're still part of that revenue stream, and ChevronTexaco is still getting some of your money.

Second, crude oil makes more than fuel. It goes into motor oil, plastics, clothing, household chemicals, and a hundred other things. You may boycott ChevronTexaco for drilling ANWR, but how are you going to change all those other buying habits to affect the ANWR-oil cash stream? There's really no way to know how to spend your dollars right in this situation.

Sure, boycotting ANWR drillers will still have some value -- perhaps mostly symbolic. But I think a more effective protest might be to take yourself out of the oil market as much as possible. Buy clothes made from natural fiber or recycled plastics. Use public transit more. Consider switching to a diesel car and running it on biodiesel.

I think Boxer's protest might be better served if it was honest with people in this way. In our supply-and-demand economy, if we collectively use less gas, that should bring the price down, which will mean less money in the petro-giants' pockets.

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Higher mpg would snuff out ANWR oil -- twice

Mike at Green Car Congress has a worthy post from yesterday comparing ANWR oil reserves with savings that could be achieved by increasing Corporate Averge Fuel Economy Standards. (Remember that on Wednesday, House committees approved ANWR drilling and also rejected an increase in the CAFE standard).

The short version is that ANWR might produce about 860,000 barrels of oil by 2024. Raising fuel economy standards by 36 percent, on the other hand, would save twice that much oil while also reducing air pollution.

The higher CAFE standard is estimated to increase the price of a car by $1,200. But I suspect most people would be willing to pay that to reduce their "pain at the pump" and also our dependence on imported oil. And maybe even to preserve ANWR as well.

The other thing to consider is that the mpg savings are a relatively permanent change, whereas ANWR oil will eventually run out.

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Thursday, April 14, 2005

Rep. Don Young's comments

Alaska Rep. Don Young made some interesting comments after the Resources Committee vote yesterday. I think they are revealing, so I'll share.

Quoted by the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, he chastised Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., for speaking against oil development.
"I hope my good friend from Arizona thought about my state, thought about my people, my constituents and my Native people."

Quoted by KTUU-TV:
“Talking about my people, my constituents, and my Native people that support this -- AFN, the Inuits, they support this. You say, ‘Oh, it's because they're going to make some profit.’ Yes, they're going to lift themselves out of the ghettos, and put themselves in the right place as they should be in our society.”

Responding in the News-Miner story was Anna Davidson, a Yup'ik woman originally from Akiachak, who was visiting D.C. to protest the vote:
"I'm surely not his Native. The way he sounded was like he owned me."

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What the committee voted on...

I don't have detail on how the vote shook out, but this is what the House Resources Committee voted on yesterday: H.R. 39, the Domestic Energy Security Act of 2005. I also don't know if the bill was amended, since the Congressional record hasn't been updated yet, but the link takes you to the original bill as proposed by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.

It appears to be a mirror image of H.R. 4, the ANWR drilling bill adopted by the House and rejected by the Senate in 2001. In short, it would open up the coastal plain ("1002 Area") to oil leasing, totalling some 1.5 million acres. Troubling highlights of H.R. 39, on first blush:

-- Allows drilling under a previous environmental impact statement from 1987. This is questionable, since if they also require the "best commercially available" drilling technology, shouldn't that new technology be considered in a new EIS?

-- Allow no more than 45,000 acres to be designated as "special areas" closed to drilling. In other words, if we later find that more land needs to be set aside to protect caribou or muskoxen or waterfowl ponds, the act forbids it.

-- Lease a minimum of 200,000 acres in the first sale. Much more could be leased later.

-- Limits exploration activities to the period between Nov. 1 and May 1 each year, when ice roads can be used. But the Secretary of Interior can make exceptions, so exploration can really occur at any time.

-- Strict limits on judicial review. In other words, to limit challenges by critics.

There's a lot more in there, but I'll leave you with that for now.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2005

House committee approves ANWR drilling

By a vote of 30-13 today, the House Resources Committee today approved amendments to the federal energy bill that would permit drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The committee defeated a Democrat-sponsored amendment that would have banned drilling in the refuge. The panel's bill calls for the Interior Department to lease to oil companies at least 200,000 acres in the coastal plain within two years after the legislation is signed into law. (That's right, 200 THOUSAND acres. So much for the claim that drilling will only impact 2,000 acres of the refuge.)

The committee also overwhelmingly supported the Set America Free Act, meant to increase America's energy alliances with Canada and Mexico.

The committee's markup of the energy bill still must be matched up with that of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. On Wednesday, that committee voted against requiring U.S. automakers to ratchet up fuel efficiency to a fleet average of 33 miles per gallon by 2014 from the current 27.5 mpg for passenger cars. Democrats from Michigan, loyal to carmakers, led the assault on that provision, clinging to the falacy that higher fuel efficiency standards will make cars less safe.

"It's not what Americans want," Democrat Bart Stupak of Michigan said.

So, in a single day, American politicians voted to exploit one of the nation's last great wilderness areas for oil, to increase our dependence on other nations' oil, and to ensure that all the oil we can get our mitts on gets burned up as fast as possible.

"I am proud of our members who took a realistic and common-sense approach to our nation’s energy needs,” said Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chair of the Resources Committee.

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Teshekpuk Lake: Is local trust eroding?

Teshekpuk Lake
Originally uploaded by BlogAdmin.
This photo shows seaplanes tied up on Teshekpuk Lake on Alaska's North Slope, with a camp set up on the shore. The photo isn't dated, but judging from the aircraft, it's probably from the late 1950s or early 1960s.

For North Slope native people, Teshekpuk Lake (which lies outside ANWR) is a vital subsistence hunting area. Now the U.S. Bureau of Land Management wants to sell oil drilling rights around the lake. For some lively debate about how this plan is eroding support for oil drilling among local residents of Alaska's North Slope Borough, read the comments to yesterday's post.

Photo: USFWS

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Drilling could top 90,000 acres on native lands

Seattle Times writer Hal Bernton reports today on a number of overlooked facts in the history of ANWR oil development.

Most interesting are details of a land swap between the federal government and Arctic Slope Regional Corp., a native-owned oil extraction company. We reported some of these details here, but Bernton adds a lot more important detail. Most importantly, the corporation actually holds title to 92,160 subsurface acres inside the refuge, and it is clamoring to drill there.

So the claimed 2,000-acre impact of ANWR drilling, so popular with politicians and their conservative spinmeisters, is an even grander fib than we already knew. Arctic Slope is not bound by this limit because of its private land holdings. Drilling could actually sprawl over the entirety of its 92,160 acres. On top of this there is the true impact of road- and pipeline-miles throughout the refuge, not included in the 2,000-acre claim.

Politicians have also been fond of proclaiming that all Alaskan natives will benefit from ANWR drilling. That's not necessarily true, as Arctic Slope Regional Corp. gets to keep 100 percent of the money generated on its lands, which could reach billions.

For these and other reasons, many native people on the North Slope are beginning to have a change of heart about ANWR drilling. Earlier this year, 57 of the more than 150 adults residents of Kaktovik signed a petition against refuge drilling.

"Inupiat subsistence hunters and their families are beginning to feel a sense of dread about oil development," George Ahmaogak, mayor of the North Slope Borough based in Barrow, wrote in a 2003 commentary that described a growing network of pipelines and roads onshore and expanding offshore leasing.

Funny how these details get overlooked in the rush for oil. Thanks to Hal Bernton for bringing them back to the table.

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Monday, April 11, 2005

House committee takes up ANWR rules Wednesday

The House Resources Committee on Wednesday will begin marking up the proposed energy bill to include provisions for tapping oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

This is a crucial stage in the future of the refuge, where committee members will decide what rules will govern oil development there. They may draw heavily on HR 4, the failed 2001 ANWR drilling bill.

Ironically, the Republicans' energy bill has been named SAFE, the Set America Free Act, another classic example of conservative doublespeak because it will do nothing of the sort. Instead, it merely gives someone else a hold on our leash by making the U.S. more dependent on energy from Canada and Mexico. A truly "SAFE" bill would devote huge resources to alternative energy technology, and that's not in the cards.

In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert has this to say about the Republican energy policy: "Simply upgrading the standards for replacement tires so that they match those for tires on new cars would avert the need for seven billion barrels (of oil), which is roughly the same amount we could hope to get out of the Arctic Refuge."

Too bad nobody cares about simple stuff like that.

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Senator: 'Nothing to keep ANWR oil in U.S.'

Interviewed in the Rapid City Journal on Saturday, South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson (D) confirmed what has been reported here and elsewhere: There are currently no guarantees that oil extracted from the Arctic Refuge will go to American consumers.

The interview focused on Johnson's differences with his fellow S.D. senator, John Thune, a Republican. Among those differences: Johnson opposed the March 16 Senate vote to allow oil drilling in ANWR, while Thune supported it.

Johnson told the paper he opposed ANWR for two reasons. One is that he simply favors a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope to the Lower 48. The other is that "there's nothing to keep that (ANWR) oil in the United States," he said.

This supports the information previously gathered here, and also comments made elsewhere by drilling critics and oil industry analysts. There is no legal language right now that prevents ANWR oil from being exported.

This clearly contradicts the claim that ANWR will help the U.S. reduce its dependence on imported oil, a leading argument for opening the refuge to drilling.

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'Blood and Oil' author: ANWR is no answer

Michael T. Clare, author of the book "Blood and Oil," writes in Sunday's Pittsburgh Tribune Review that America's energy policy is a "blueprint for bondage" because it increases our dependence on foreign oil.

He calls ANWR drilling a "sideshow" from the real issues being ignored by the administration. These are the need for much tougher fuel-effiencity standards for cars, and major commitments to alternative fuels.

ANWR's significance to the nation's oil supply is minimal now, he writes, and will become even more insignificant in the future because our thirst for oil is only expected go grow.

"The question we need to ask is not, 'Should we drill in ANWR?' but, 'What, besides drilling in ANWR, is the Bush administration doing to reduce our reliance on imported petroleum?' The answer, unfortunately, is virtually nothing."

Klare is director of the Five College Program in Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College and also a defense analyst for The Nation and NPR. His book "Blood and Oil" was published last year.

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Saturday, April 09, 2005

Industry gets immunity in polar bear, walrus deaths

Politicians and lobbyists are filling the media these days with speeches about how benign oil drilling will be in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We are constantly told that wildlife won't be harmed by drilling activities. New technology has such a low impact, we're told, that polar bears, caribou and musk oxen will, in fact, thrive around the small cities created by drilling operations.

If that's the case, then why did the oil industry seek immunity for walrus and polar bear deaths that occur as a result of their work at neighborhing Prudhoe Bay? Let's take a look.

The industry in 2000 applied for and obtained an "incidental take" permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (see Federal Register, Nov. 28, 2003, page 66744). Incidental take, in federal parlance, means to kill. The permit allowed oil companies working along the edge of the Beaufort Sea to harrass and kill polar bear and walrus in the course of their extraction and exploration activities. This permit expired in March, 2003, then was renewed until March 28, 2005.

The filing clearly states the permit was not required. So, why get it at all?

Because the industry knows that oil drilling might kill walrus and polar bear, and they want immunity from fines and legal liability. It's a real enough possibility that they want to protect themselves. That's quite a different story than we've been hearing lately about ANWR.

The "incidental take" permit actually applies to all offshore waters from Barrow east to the Canadian border, which includes waters off of ANWR, but not ANWR itself. The permit was sought by the Alaska Oil and Gas Association on behalf of its members, a virtual who's-who of the global oil business. The group originally asked for the permit to run until 2008, but regulators extended it only until last month, citing the need for more data. So it's likely a renewal will be sought.

Walrus are not common in the area, but the polar bear population in the Southern Beaufort Sea was estimated at 2,273 in 2002. In 30 years of oil drilling on Alaska's North Slope, only two polar bears have been killed as a direct result of oil development. In winter 1968-1969, an industry employee shot and killed a polar bear. In 1990 a female polar bear was killed at a drill site on the west side of Camden Bay (we don't know how). But the list of harmful activities is much longer.

Noise, vibration and lights from oil extraction can disrupt feeding and denning habits. The biggest risk is to females with cubs, which den up for the winter. Oil development could cause them to leave their dens when cubs are vulnerable. Female polar bears are not especially prolific breeders (averaging two cubs every 3 to 4 years), so this sort of disruption could hurt the population.

Oil spills are another significant problem. Polar bears explosed to oil can suffer health problems, fur loss and death. Regulators estimated the likelihood of one or more spills greater than 1,000 barrels in size occurring in the marine environment at 1 to 5 percent during the period covered by the regulations. The probability of a spill causing death to one or more bears was 0.4-1.3 percent.

But these numbers are only a guess, because they are based on data gathered outside the Arctic. In other words, they do not take into account the extra risk of spills inherent in working around permafrost and sea ice. Officials called this "the greatest source of uncertaintly in our calculations." They admitted the likelihood of polar bear deaths could be double their estimates.

The point is that this is what's happening with the "new drilling technology". The industry is worried about killing polar bears and walruses with the new technology. And remember that the industry wanted this permit to run until 2008.

Some people still believe that oil drilling in a wildlife refuge won't harm wildlife. But the oil companies aren't among them.

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Friday, April 08, 2005

Ain't it a KIC? The story of ANWR's only well...

Originally uploaded by BlogAdmin.
There has only ever been one oil well drilled in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It was an exploratory well drilled in 1985-86, and the results have been a closely-held secret ever since.

The attached photo shows what the drilling site looked like in 1990. Obviously, there was a fair amount of disturbance to the tundra.

As described here, the test well was made possible by an interesting land exchange. In 1983, the federal government transfered title to subsurface rights beneath Kaktovic Inupiat Corporation village lands (hence the "KIC" name) to the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, a for-profit native Eskimo company. The corporation then leased the lands to Chevron and BP, which allowed them to drill the exploratory well in 1985.

Located about 13 miles southeast of Kaktovic, KIC-1 was drilled three miles down at a cost of $40 million.

"Only a handful of people know what's down the KIC well," BP spokesman Ronnie Chappell told the Associated Press in 2001. "They've never talked about it. I'm not even sure who they are."

One of them might be Oliver Leavitt, chairman of the board of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. The company still owns the site of KIC-1, so it stands to make a bundle if the refuge is ever opened to drilling. Writing in Indian Country Today recently, Leavitt framed revenues from ANWR drilling as key to the education and well-being of Alaskan natives.

"I do not want any young Alaska Natives to be forced to choose between a high school education and practicing a subsistence culture among his or her people," he wrote.

Today KIC-1 is marked only by a rusty iron pole stabbed into the tundra. The native corporation and the oil companies won a lawsuit in 1991 allowing them to keep the drilling results a secret.

"Rarely has such a fundamental political battle been waged with so little information," AP reporter Joseph Verrengia noted insightfully in 2001.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

While we keep drilling, UK is 'GoingGreen'

Originally uploaded by BlogAdmin.
Here's a peek at what we're missing across the pond. While us Yanks are frantically searching for new places to stick our petroleum feeding tube, car buyers in Britain are snapping up the new G-Wiz, an electric microcar that sells for the equivalent of about $10,000.

Made by a company called GoinGreen, the G-Wiz is billed as "the car that doesn't cost the earth." It can reach up to 40 mph and runs for 40 miles on a single charge. Its batteries can achieve an 80 percent recharge in 2.5 hours -- just right for restoring power after that lunchtime dash to In-N-Out Burger.

The car's body panels are made of ABS plastic, which can be recycled. You can get the Wiz-mobile fully optioned with leather seats, CD player, and a trick prewarming feature that heats the interior up before you have to climb aboard on a winter day.

Is it ugly? Emphatically, yes. But not as bad as many of the electric car designs we saw at the dawn of this technology.

Is it practical? Certainly not for everyone. But it would work great as a commuter ride for somebody who lives in the suburbs and plants themselves in a downtown cubicle during the week. In other words, most of us.

Will we ever get them here in the U.S.? Doubtful. Instead, we are gleefully waiting 10 years for hydrogen fuel cell cars, and hoping desperately that we'll have somewhere to refuel them when that happens.

No guarantee ANWR oil will stay at home

My earlier post about Sen. Wyden's request for information about ANWR oil generated quite a bit of discussion. One observer claimed that legislation forbids the export of ANWR oil. Turns out that isn't necessarily so.

The House of Representatives approved legislation, HR 4, in 2001 opening ANWR to oil exploration. But the Senate failed to adopt a similar law, so it went nowhere. But HR 4 specifically forbid the export of oil from ANWR, in Sec. 6506(a)8, "Lease Terms and Conditions."

That was four years ago. It's a different ballgame now.

No legislation has yet emerged to actually open ANWR to drilling. A draft could appear any day now from the House Resources Committee, to be incorporated into the Republicans' forthcoming energy bill, which is emerging from its slumber. But there's no reason to presume it will include the same ban on exports contained in HR 4. The budget resolution approved March 16, SCR 18, contained no such restriction.

As we reported here earlier, analysts say ANWR oil is likely to go into the "global marketplace" rather than remain within the U.S. market. In other words, that's what the industry would like. And what industry likes these days, industry seems to get.

So, short of some new language forbidding export of ANWR oil, it seems likely we will sacrifice irreplaceable wilderness so that some other country can burn up American oil. So much for the hyperbole that drilling ANWR will loosen the leash between us and OPEC.

To make matters worse, it will probably be an oil-hungry Asian nation upwind of us that gets ANWR's oil, a place where pollution controls are not as strict, which will send more smog into America's lungs. Studies show that smog produced in Asia travels on trade winds across the Pacific and contributes to pollution problems in North America.

In short, we'll get to watch as ANWR wilderness is destroyed for a few months' worth of oil. And then we'll also get to breathe an extra dose of smog when the exhaust from that oil drifts back home.

Give your representatives in Washington a big "thanks," won't you?

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Artist View: One more David Mollett

Just wanted to offer up one more view of David Mollett's work before the week is out. This one has terrific depth and really captures the grandeur and diversity of the refuge.

Again, you can see more of Mollett's work here.

Offshore drilling revived by ANWR vote?

The Associated Press reports today that oil companies are showing renewed interest in drilling for oil and gas off the nation's coasts, in response to the Senate's March 16 vote to pursue oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge.

Some energy producers now feel they have a unique opportunity to relax or eliminate offshore protections. "Part of the solution has to be opening more access," said Duane Radtke of Dominion Resources Inc., based in Virginia.

Former President George H. W. Bush in 1990 placed a 10-year drilling moratorium on most offshore U.S. acreage. Former President Bill Clinton in 1998 extended the moratorium until 2012.

Meanwhile, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., introduced legislation on Wednesday that would allow just that. It would give governors the power to override federal drilling bans in coastal waters along their states. It would also give them 50 percent of any revenue generated, a major carrot for many cash-strapped states.

In the House, Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., said he plans to introduce companion legislation modeled on Alexander's. Pombo chairs the House Resources Committee.

"We embrace this because it is very much thinking outside the box," said Dave Schryver of the American Public Gas Association.

How he came to that conclusion is anybody's guess. Sounds like the same old drill-and-drain energy policy to me.

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Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Senator demands detail on U.S. oil exports

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, is demanding that the Commerce Department release detailed reports on which companies are exporting U.S. oil, how much and where it went.

Last year the nation exported 268 million barrels of oil. Shockingly, according to Dept. of Energy figures, that's about equal to the amount of oil we imported from Iraq in 2001, the year before our latest war with that country began. It's also about equal to the most optimistic guesses about production volume from ANWR, if drilling is allowed there.

In other words, if we simply held onto our own oil, the United States would have no oil interest in Iraq at all. And it would also negate any perceived need to disturb an irreplaceable wildlife refuge in the search for oil.

But the Commerce Department refused to provide the detail Wyden wants, saying it could only be released to a Congressional committee, not an individual representative. The agency also claims federal law forbids disclosure unless a finding is made that withholding the information contradicts national interests. That sounds like hogwash to me.

Wyden's request is of significant interest for two more reasons. First, it is likely that if oil drilling is approved in ANWR, much of that oil will be exported to Asia rather than sold in the U.S. Secondly, the more obvious reason is that every motorist and politician who can warm a chair is concerned about the nation's growing dependence on imported oil. It would seem to contradict our economic and political interests to worsen this imbalance by selling off our own supplies.

In a letter sent Monday to Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, Wyden demanded release of the information, calling it "directly relevant to the coming Congressional debate on how to address our nation's dependence on imports of oil and other petroleum products."

I'd call that an understatement. But Wyden faces an uphill battle to get a committee to demand the numbers. Though Wyden is a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, it and all other Congressional committees are controlled by Republicans. And as we've seen, Republicans these days aren't very interested in facts, especially if those facts contradict their agenda.

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Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Artist View: David Mollett

David Mollett's paintings of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are ghostly. His broad brush strokes and rapid work habits produce paintings that read like next morning's flicker of a dream.

Mollett, an assistant professor of art at University of Alaska-Fairbanks, has been visiting and painting ANWR since 1988. "Within minutes of arriving ... on my first trip, I knew I'd found an incredible place to paint," he says.

His paintings are completed "in the field" using quick-drying alkyd paints on canvas. So the finished images you see are about as close to the mind's eye of a painter as the viewer is likely to get.

Mollett's subjects are entirely landscapes, but he doesn't shy from seemingly monotonous subjects like pack ice on Beaufort Sea, which becomes a rainbow of dreamy shapes on his canvas.

What's striking about all his ANWR work is the vastness of color. Detractors call the refuge a "desert" and a "wasteland." But Mollett, who also owns the Well St. Gallery in Fairbanks, makes clear there is all kinds of life that gives color to the refuge.

"Very few people have been to the refuge, and the public has almost no idea what the place looks like," he writes. "My goal has been to demonstrate that the high Arctic is not a barren wasteland, and to draw attention to and preserve the beauty of the Arctic Refuge."

He has certainly done that, at least on canvas.

You can see more of Mollett's work here.

Earth Day 'virtual march' to protect ANWR

A coalition of environmental groups has launched an Earth Day Virtual March on April 22 to protest recent political moves to open the Arctic Refuge to oil drilling. The group's website will be the hub for an "avalanche of emails, phone calls and faxes" to persuade politicians to reconsider exploiting ANWR for oil.

"We wanted to give individuals the means to have their voices heard collectively by the politicians in Washington and see the impact of joining forces with activists across the country," said Randy Paynter, founder of Care2, one of the groups coordinating the "march." Defenders of Wildlife is the other leading sponsor.

Through the website, individuals will find easy ways to send their thoughts to virtually every federal politician, including Pres. Bush. The site also includes a novel tool that allows bloggers to create a "personal impact tracking map" to see where members of their blog have joined from. At this writing, nearly 10,000 people from every state have joined the march already.

This is the first such "virtual march" that I've heard of. It's a novel idea, but I wonder how effective it will be. Politicians must know already that they are ignoring poll results on ANWR, which lean strongly against drilling. I suppose events like this are meant to make those poll results harder to ignore.

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Monday, April 04, 2005

In Focus: polar bears

Originally uploaded by BlogAdmin.
This photo shows a mother polar bear and two cubs on the shore of the Beaufort Sea in the 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (USFWS photo).

The U.S. Geological Survey is working on a study to develop a more accurate way to locate den sites in advance of oil exploration at ANWR. Maternal den sites are extremely difficult to locate, and very vulnerable to oil exploration.

Seismic exploration involves the movement of heavy "thumper trucks" and placement of receptors in a vast grid pattern across the frozen tundra. Maternal polar bears with newborn cubs can be chased out of winter dens by the
noise, vibration and human activities that go along with exploration. The result can be deadly both to the mother, which may be shot by alarmed oil workers, or to the cubs, which may be unprepared to endure winter conditions.

In 1985, during the only authorized oil exploration event in ANWR, a female polar bear abandoned her den in the coastal plain after seismic exploration vehicles tracked within 700 feet of it, even though regulations required a 0.8-kilometer buffer from known dens. This occurred despite the most extensive monitoring program ever for seismic exploration on the North Slope.

Claimed drilling footprint 'laughably devious'

We've heard it ad nauseum already from politicians and ANWR drilling supporters: tapping refuge oil will only require a 2,000-acre footprint on the sensitive tundra, and new technologies will minimize the the impact of drilling.

Well, this excellent piece in Technology Review provides some worthwhile perspective. Author Bryant Urstadt reviews the claims and the technology, and finds that the alleged 2,000-acre impact is "the most laughably devious language" in any recent federal bill.

That's because it does not count the ground covered by all the pipelines that ANWR drilling will require, only the small footprint of each leg supporting the pipelines. That's like saying an SUV only covers 4 square feet of ground because you're only counting the tires' interface with the ground.

Urstadt goes on in reviewing a report by the Congressional Research Service on ANWR drilling, which he calls the industry's "best case" scenario. Yes, he finds, technology does exist to minimize drilling's impact, but it's unlikely to be employed because it costs oil companies more money and federal regulators won't require it.

"Industry is not a moral being but an economic creature responding only to economic stimuli," Urstadt writes. "As such, given the current balance of power in Washington, there is good reason to conclude that big oil probably could drill clean, but probably won't."

One need only look at fuel economy standards for proof of this theory. We all know technology exists to increase fuel economy in all American vehicles -- more than enough to stave off ANWR drilling and a good chunk of our oil imports, in fact. But manufacturers moan that it costs too much, and politicians swoon and never require it.

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Sunday, April 03, 2005

Bill Day: A unique perspective

Bill Day is business editor of the San Antonio(Texas) Express News, and he offers an interesting commentary on the ANWR debate in today's paper. He's a business guy, obviously, and spends a lot of his time thinking about money and economics to bring his readers the best business news.

Taking his inspiration from a paper by Univ. of Colorado economics professor Phillip Graves, Day notes it is hard for economists to fully value public goods such as clean air and beautiful scenery because they can't charge for them. They're available to everyone for the taking.

He also explains why a lot of environmentalists act the way they do. Most people are prone to act only on their own self-interest, but environmentalists act in the interest of the environment. Therefore, unlike most consumers, they don't always buy things (land, water, oil) just because they can. In effect, these things become "priceless."

Concludes Day: "Cost-benefit analyses are important, but only if the right values are used."

So, what are the right values? That's the question we face today concerning ANWR.

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Do Republicans only care about oil?

I'm happy to report that the answer is clearly "no." Most polls about ANWR show that a majority of people, even Republicans, oppose oil drilling in the refuge. The trouble is that you rarely hear this expressed outside of a poll.

Well, here's one expression worth reading. It's from Jim DiPeso, policy director of Republicans for Environmental Protection. The group has taken a firm stand against ANWR drilling, and on its website there are many ways to explore its well-reasoned position, and take action of your own.

But I want to point your attention to DiPeso's own blog, in which he makes one of the most clearly stated arguments I've seen anywhere for why ANWR drilling is suicidal policy.

"Absent a serious policy to improve fuel efficiency and to aggressively commercialize non-petroleum fuels," DiPeso writes, "domestic oil demand will outrun domestic supply, and ever larger quantities of oil imports will be needed... By 2025, Department of Energy projections estimate that U.S. oil demand will be 8 million barrels per day higher than it is today. There is no prospect, none whatsoever, that the Arctic Refuge would come close to supplying the increased demand.

"In short," he continues, "as long as the U.S. is dependent on oil, the U.S. will be dependent on foreign oil. We will be vulnerable to economically damaging price spikes. We will keep sending money to dysfunctional regimes, the kleptocrats and autocrats sitting on the world's largest remaining oil reserves. We will sow the seeds of future conflict with China in a potentially deadly competition to grab the last pots of black gold."

Wow. This from a Republican? It restores my hope in the future.

Republicans for Environmental Protection has been around for quite a while. Unfortunately its message is usually smothered by the idealogues who dominate the Right today. If you're a Republican who believes that "conservative" includes "conservation," I urge you to help this group get its message out.

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It's deep-breath time

Congress returns from its two-week spring vacation tomorrow, with the daunting task of reconciling two very different federal budget bills coming out of the House and Senate. The break was a chance for everyone to think rationally about this, and a lot of real doubt exists about whether the two houses can agree.

This is significant, because if they can't agree, the ANWR oil drilling provision in the Senate's version of the budget will die on the vine. And there's a real possibility of that happening, because there are many other contentious differences between the House and Senate budgets.

This Sunday piece by Richard Mauer in the Anchorage Daily News lays it all out pretty well. There is disagreement over Medicaid cuts sought by Pres. Bush and the additional tax cuts he wanted (which, by the way, are unfunded and will further deepen the budget deficit).

"It's not a slam-dunk that a budget resolution will be passed," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the nonpartisan Concord Coalition.

The House version of the budget does not contain an ANWR drilling provision. A group of moderate House Republicans has urged their budget committee chairman, Jim Nussle (R-Iowa), to keep it that way. Said Nussle recently: "I hate to be a naysayer about this at all, but I'm not sure how we get a conference with the Senate with where they're at."

Even if ANWR does stay in the finished budget bill, drilling is not a done deal. The House and Senate must still write legislation to "enable" the specifics in the budget. In the case of ANWR, this would fall to the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee and House Resources Committee. The committees have until June to return legislation, which would then be combined in a reconciliation package that must be approved again by both chambers and signed by the president.

With Republicans controlling every step of the process, it would be a huge embarrassment if they can't agree on a budget. As David Broder of the Washington Post said so succintly, "The heat is on."

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Friday, April 01, 2005

A blogger who's been there...

I recently came across this blog by Mark York, a fisheries biologist who has worked in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He has a number of interesting posts about his experiences working there and the issues surrounding the refuge. Worth checking out.

Among other things, he has this to say: "Water is scarce in the arctic coastal plain. Essentially it's a desert, so there's not enough water available for ice roads hence the inevitability of gravel permanant roads going every which way all across the calving grounds."

Most of us haven't been to ANWR, and most of us (thank goodness) will never go. But it's nice to see someone weighing in who knows the ground.

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In Focus: 1002 Area

Originally uploaded by BlogAdmin.
This red-necked phalarope was photographed in the so-called "1002 Area" of coastal ANWR. This is the area slated for oil leasing as proposed by Republicans in Congress.
Source: USFWS

A plot to build highways?

Thanks to the Pombo Watch website (which seems dormant, for now), I came across an interesting letter that suggests oil drilling in ANWR is part of a plan to pay for construction of new highways.

It's a letter dated Feb. 3, 2004, from House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) to Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure. In the letter, Pombo offers up ANWR oil revenues as a way to fund transportation projects in a massive transportation bill overseen by Young.

Pombo claims, somewhat haphazardly, that federal royalties and corporate taxes derived from ANWR drilling could generate some $400 billion for the treasury. And while he confesses that "it would be difficult to specifically capture the taxes generated on this new wealth" for transportation, it would nevertheless pump up the federal budget in general.

The transportation bill is H.R. 3, also known as "TEA-LU" or Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users. It is a renewal of one of the most important federal transportation bills that funds thousands of vital projects, from public transit to bike lanes and highway widenings. Essentially, it keeps America moving.

But the bill was taken over by a handful of powerful politicians and loaded with $12 billion in porkbarrel projects, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit watchdog group. Many of these projects have nothing to do with keeping America moving, including horse trails, museums and interpretive centers.

In Pombo's case, it includes millions of dollars to fund two very controversial new highways in his home district.

"The transportation bill is a pork laden budget buster that needs a serious overhaul," Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense said in a statement. "Instead of cutting spending in a fiscally responsible manner, lawmakers are committing highway robbery on taxpayers to pay for parochial pork."

But is it also committing refuge robbery? Are these politicians counting on ANWR revenue to fund their pet projects, which they know cannot be funded otherwise because of wasteful spending elsewhere in the budget (Iraq war, tax cuts, etc.).

Young has been described as Pombo's mentor. Indeed, he helped Pombo, a relative youngster, get the Resources Committee chairmanship over a number of much more senior politicians. Is Pombo using ANWR to return a favor?

Here's a link to the letter. Warning: It's a .pdf file.

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Patagonia Co. urges action on ANWR

Progressive outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia today urges its customers and others to take action to protect ANWR, saying the refuge is "under attack from the oil industry and their allies in Congress and the administration."

The company's website includes easy links to learn how your senator voted on the recent budget amendment dealing with ANWR, an easy way to write your senator a note, and links to environmental groups working on the issue.

Patagonia, founded by pioneering climber Yvon Chouinard, has stuck its neck out for years on environmental issues. Among its initiatives is 1% for the Planet, a program urging private companies to donate 1 percent of their profits to protect the environment.

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Oil continues runup, record climb predicted

The price of oil reached $55 a barrel again today after falling slightly in recent days. The climb was driven partly by continued predictions for huge demand in Asia.

More worrisome are reports that, for the past month, even U.S. gasoline demand has climbed. We used 2 percent more gas than the same time a year ago, despite record pump prices.

But what really rocked the markets was a disturbing report from leading analyst Goldman Sachs. The firm said we are entering a "super spike" period that could drive prices to $105 a barrel.

The report was alternately praised and criticized. One observer responded by saying "there's going to be tremendous demand growth in the late third and the fourth quarter of this year." Another said: "There's no doubt we're in a new bull market for crude oil."

All this could mean big happenings in the political landscape, no doubt strengthening cries to open ANWR to oil drilling. I hope it will finally convince people to call for broad vehicle efficiency improvements. How high do prices have to go before habits really start changing?

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