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Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 11/18/2005 [Archive]

The Drill on ANWR from Interior Secretary Norton



Interior Secretary Norton: The Drill on ANWR

Interviewed by Bill Steigerwald

Thanks to this summer's energy headaches, the Bush administration is pushing harder than usual to get Congress to open up the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas drilling. Located on the North Slope of Alaska, ANWR contains at least 10.4 billion barrels of oil and at $50 a barrel is worth half a trillion bucks.

The administration's chief cheerleader for permitting the careful exploitation of ANWR is Gale Norton, the market-savvy Secretary of the Interior, which manages 20 percent of the land of the United States. I talked to her Nov. 17 by telephone from her offices in Washington:

Q: Can you sum up the problem we face with energy?

A: Our demand for energy has continued to grow. Even though our economy has grown faster than our demand for energy, the traditional areas we look to provide oil and gas get tapped out over time. The production has been declining from onshore, Texas and Prudhoe Bay and other areas we think of as the places where the oil is. We need to find new areas in order to have domestic production, and that has become increasingly difficult.

Q: Is opening up ANWR more important as a political symbol of our getting serious about our energy needs, or is it important in and of itself?

A: It is clearly important in and of itself. It is our largest untapped onshore source of oil. No country that wants to be internationally competitive and energy independent can overlook its largest source of supply.

Q: Some argue that ANWR's not worth it because it's just a year's worth of the United States' oil needs. It's not really that much is it?

A: It's absurdly unrealistic to think that all a nation's energy for several decades is going to come from one source. You need to have a variety of different sources. ANWR would provide 15 to 20 percent of domestic oil production by the time it would be fully developed. That is hugely significant. What we've just gone through in the last few months -- with loss of offshore oil production and the very high prices that we have seen -- is a result of losing about as much oil production on an average day as we would get from ANWR.

Q: Have you been to ANWR?

A: Several times.

Q: What's it like?

A: First of all, it is the coastal plain. When you see pictures that show mountains, the mountains are not the area that would be opened for oil exploration. It is a very harsh environment. It's dark for almost two months of the year. The wind chill when I was there in late March was 75 degrees below zero. But the concentration of the resources means we can do a great deal to protect the environment in that area. Because it is so cold, we can use ice roads. ... I've been back in the springtime and seen that they melt away and the tundra is still intact where the ice road was in the winter time.

Q: What's the least credible argument you've heard against drilling in ANWR?

A: I think one of the arguments that doesn't really fit with the facts is the idea that we would be destroying ANWR. Any energy activities would be limited to 2,000 acres of the surface. That is the size of a small airport in a refuge the size of South Carolina. That would count every road surface. It counts all the living quarters for people, all the office space and everything that is part of the footprint of production. Most of ANWR is a designated wilderness, so nothing can be done to expand that. There is one other thing I ought to mention. Some people raised the idea that opening ANWR creates a precedent for other areas of the wildlife refuge system. The reality is that the coastal plain of ANWR has, for 25 years, been in a different status than anywhere else in the refuge system. A law that was signed by Jimmy Carter in 1980 said this was an area that has high energy potential and should be examined for opening to oil and gas exploration.

Q: This is not another big gift to oil companies from government -- there are no subsidies involved?

A: There would be no subsidies. In fact, the companies would have to invest large amounts of money to comply with the strict environmental standards. It really is an issue of national security and national competitiveness more than it is a desire by major oil companies to go into ANWR. They can produce energy in any place in the world. They are not the strong proponents of opening ANWR. It's people like me who want to see $1.5 billion every month stay here in the United States instead of being sent overseas to buy oil in the future. Over the lifetime of ANWR, we expect that half a trillion dollars would stay here instead of purchasing foreign oil -- that's at $50 a barrel.

Q: Who in Congress is working against ANWR, and how is the administration ever going to get it opened up?

A: We've had such a dramatic lesson in the last few months about our energy supply in this country. We have recognized the need for diversity of supply, so that not everything is coming from hurricane country. We have also in the last few years, for the first time, seen other countries emerge as strong competitors for purchasing oil on the international market. China's growth has been a major factor in increasing the cost of energy. I was stunned to see a report predicting that the Chinese economy would surpass the size of the West's economy in about 2041. The United States needs to get serious about using its own resources.

Q: Are you optimistic that ANWR will be opened -- and when?

A: I continue to feel strongly that if budget reconciliation legislation is passed, ANWR will be a part of that. Once legislation is passed, it will be seven to 10 years to complete the regulatory process and planning so that production could begin.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at bsteigerwald@tribweb.com. ©Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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