D.C. Outlook: Compromise on energy vital

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 13, 2002


As the Congress considers our national energy policy, the debate is already deteriorating into Washington’s version of the “blame game,” with both sides taking the position: my way or no way.

Many Republicans accuse Democrats of wanting to conserve their way out of energy shortages. And many Democrats accuse Republicans of wanting to drill their way toward energy independence, with no regard for the environment.

Well, both sides are right. And both are wrong.

The good news is we all agree – no small feat in Washington – this nation is too dependent on foreign oil and our addiction is only worsening. The United States imports 57 percent of our oil, a level dangerous to both our economic and our national security.

A balanced energy policy should include conservation, investments in alternative fuel sources, such as geothermal and solar power, and funding for renewable energy programs and fuel-efficient vehicles. In February, I voted to provide more than $6 billion in tax incentives to encourage energy-saving activities.

Alternatives to traditional energy sources alone, however, cannot wean America off a diet rich in foreign oil, but low in domestic production. A balanced energy policy is not balanced unless it also includes drilling and exploration in our own country.

The United States is more dependent on foreign oil than at any other time in our history. The Department of Energy estimates that our reliance on foreign energy will approach 64 percent in 20 years.

To counter this dangerous trend, we must explore for new supplies of oil and gas. I believe the Senate should approve responsible and contained drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, America’s best bet for a major new oil find.

The coastal plain of ANWR could contain the single-largest supply of crude oil ever discovered in the United States. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the coastal plain could yield as much as 16 billion barrels of recoverable fuel, the equivalent of 30 years of Saudi energy imports.

Contrary to popular belief, ANWR was never intended to be off-limits to oil production. In 1981, Congress and President Carter indentified a small portion of ANWR’s coastal plain as an area to be made available for future oil and gas exploration.

I have visited ANWR in the winter and summer, and I believe limited exploration on the coastal plain is consistent with a balanced approach because with modern technology drilling and development are sensitive to both ecology and to local concerns. Energy development enjoys the support of the people of Alaska and can be done, today, without damaging Alaska’s ecosystem.

My own state of Louisiana has a 60-year track record of producing oil and gas in ecosystems far more fragile and sensitive than the desolate tundra of the coastal plain of Alaska.

The vast majority of ANWR – the portions that are truly wilderness – would be completely undisturbed by drilling. New drilling technologies would minimize the so-called footprint to just 2,000 acres on an area 19 million acres large, roughly the size of Maine.

Our entire nation will reap tangible economic benefits from the development of the coastal plain of ANWR. Oil development could create 735,000 diverse jobs and generate billions of dollars for the federal government through lease-sale receipts and tax revenue.

Congress has a dangerous habit of formulating energy policy only when confronted with a crisis or a disruption in oil supplies. Then, after the crisis wanes, our reliance on the Middle East for energy continues to grow – including energy imports from nations identified by President Bush as the “Axis of Evil.”

We have a unique opportunity this year for a reasonable compromise that will create a balanced national energy policy and reverse our growing reliance on foreign energy, a trend that puts the security of our nation at risk.

There is no good reason to wait for the next energy crisis – and there will be another crisis – before we craft an energy policy. We know alternative sources and increased domestic exploration both belong in a comprehensive national energy policy. These long-term solutions are long overdue and will take years to develop.

Reducing our dependence on foreign oil must be our goal, for both economic and security reasons. The solution lies in a sensible balance of conservation and production.

JOHN BREAUX represents Louisiana in the United States Senate.