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DRILLING IN THE WILDERNESS
BY ASSUMING OIL INCOME IN THE BUDGET, CONGRESS OPENS REFUGE TO EXPLOITATION

Congressional approval of oil drilling in a still-pristine arctic wilderness unwisely risks trading an inadequate short-term gain for a permanent big-time loss. It's bad policy and bad legislation, and deserves to be derailed.

Recently, Republicans inserted a clause in the federal budget bill that would open the door to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, by assuming revenue from drilling rights. By the narrowest of margins, 51-49, the Senate defeated an attempt to set things right again, with both New York senators commendably voting for that amendment and thus for preservation of that piece of Alaskan wilderness.

For the oil industry and its congressional and administration supporters, that's a political victory. For just about everyone else -- including a coalition of major environmental groups now vowing to continue this procedural fight -- it's a gain that amounts to a spit in the ocean, coupled to an unconscionable risk to one of the nation's few untouched regions.

Here's the truth: America cannot drill its way out of its dependence on foreign oil. Conservation and improved energy efficiency can do far more to reduce oil imports, but Congress has been reluctant to do anything meaningful about that.

Here's the math: In the government's own estimate, the amount of oil that can be recovered economically from the refuge's coastal plain at current oil prices totals about 5.4 billion barrels, and at higher-than-current prices perhaps 6.7 billion barrels. America consumes 7.3 billion barrels a year, and it would take 10 years for the new Alaskan oil to reach the market, at a production rate that would amount to about 1.1 percent of annual energy needs.

Those U.S. Geological Survey numbers aren't as rosy as the Energy Department's estimate that the United States would have to import "only" 65 percent of its oil by 2025 if the refuge is tapped, as compared to 68 percent without it. But that's still a drop in the bucket.

Better fuel efficiency could save America an estimated 234 million barrels a year annually after five years, and 440 million barrels annually after 10 years, according to National Environmental Trust researchers. What that would take is phasing in a 35 mile per gallon average standard over the decade and closing the loophole that lets SUVs be measured as trucks, not passenger vehicles.

But that's obviously easier said than done. Congress hasn't changed those rules in nearly 20 years, and average fuel efficiency actually has declined from a peak of 26.2 miles per gallon in 1987 to 25.1 mpg last year. And the auto industry, which delivered that decline, is trying to keep tougher standards out of a comprehensive national energy bill making glacially slow progress through Washington.

But those standards, and other energy efficiency and conservation policies like them, could have a truly meaningful impact on American dependence not just on foreign oil, but on all types of energy. Following that better path, which also includes hope for future transition to a hydrogen economy or renewable energy, offers far more security benefits than a measure that risks an unspoiled habitat for caribou, migratory birds and other creatures, as well as an untouched place for the human spirit.