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Originally published Wednesday, March 23, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

Forgive the sacrilege, but we need the oil

Sometime in the next few years we will need to drill in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. I suggest this even though so many consider...

Sometime in the next few years we will need to drill in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. I suggest this even though so many consider it a sacrilege, like digging for treasure in a church.

The most eloquent local proponent of the sacrilege view is Joel Connelly at the Seattle P-I. Connelly writes of his trip to the tundra, where he saw some caribou and musk oxen and heard the trilling notes of a golden plover. He quotes Justice William O. Douglas on the Arctic as a setting for a "restless soul" to "behold with wonderment." That setting must exist, the justice said, "without molestation by man."

These are religious sentiments. I hesitate before asking to drill in the other fellow's church, but it is my oil at least as much as it is his church. And our civilization needs the oil.

The disruption from drilling would not be large. The footprints would be, together, some 2,000 acres — about three times the size of the University of Washington's Seattle campus in the midst of a wildlife refuge nearly one-half as big as the state of Washington.

It is said the oil is six months' supply for the whole United States. That is somebody's estimate. It could be more or less. But suppose the figure is correct: "Six months' worth" is a political formulation like "a tax that costs no more than one latte a day." It is meant to minimize something that is probably the largest untapped field in the United States. In reality, six months' worth of oil is a whole lot. Blended in with our other supplies, it would last for decades.

Those supplies are none too robust. America was the first country to drill for oil, and as late as World War II we were the world's largest producer. (One of the reasons Japan attacked us was that we refused to sell it any.) American oil production peaked in 1970. Alaskan production peaked in 1988. Oil moving through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline has fallen to one-third its peak rate, and gradually declines. Sometime in the first half of this century, that 800-mile pipeline will be shut down.

Want a practical reason to drill in the Arctic reserve? Because the pipeline is there. Sometime in the future, it won't be there. Let's get the oil out while we have a pipeline with which to do it.

Opponents, who want us to abandon this oil, retort that it will not "solve" our energy problem — that it will not give us "energy independence." They are right about that, but our problem is so great that no single project will do that. Making the most of Alaska will reduce our dependence by a few percentage points for a few decades. It will buy time to solve bigger problems.

Opponents say we should focus on renewable energy. They have been saying this since the 1970s, but the results have not been encouraging. We have built some high-tech windmills that work when the wind blows, and that produce a tiny percentage of our electricity. But solar electricity has colonized only the calculator, and solar heating remains an oddity. The hydrogen car would be nice if we didn't have to manufacture the hydrogen. The electric car has the same problem and some other ones, besides. Alcohol from corn consumes more energy than it produces, and exists only by federal subsidy.

Energy efficiency is fine, and we are pursuing it. But we do need fuel.

Over the whole topic looms The Environment. It is an elusive concept. Sometimes it means human health, sometimes animal survival, sometimes our spiritual and esthetic feelings. On the matter of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it is mostly the latter.

The animals will not be threatened by our extraction of oil. What threatens animals is human habitation — farms and subdivisions and shopping centers and newspaper offices. No one will be putting those along the Arctic Ocean. All we need is the oil. Let's get it out, cleanly and carefully, and we can leave the tundra for the muses, musk oxen and mosquitoes.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com. Look for more of his thoughts on the STOP blog, our editorial online journal at www.seattletimes.com/stop

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