The link between California's botched energy policies and oil drilling in the crown jewel of America's national wildlife refuge system is flimsy at best. There's no excuse for making it the foundation for a new national energy policy.
President Bush, who has at least demonstrated early talent for seizing opportunities, seems intent on doing just that. Last week, he unveiled a $7.1 billion energy policy by pointing to California's problems and suggesting answers might be found in the potential oil fields of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
As his White House predecessor might have said, that dog won't hunt.
California's power crisis started with too little in-state power production to keep pace with demands, and peaked when outside power costs soared and the state capped the prices the utilities could charge for electricity. That's a failure of planning and legislation.
It's a bit of a leap to claim that California, which draws heavily on hydropower and natural gas, can be saved by a national energy policy that focuses mainly on oil drilling. Bush, fresh from a lucky tax-policy boost provided by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, virtually vaulted into that saddle nonetheless.
His policy, complete with a comment that the Alaska refuge is "a good place to look" for more energy, includes tax incentives for domestic oil production and fewer federal restrictions on drilling. Aides indicated the government might consider short-term measures, including letting more older coal-burning power plants back on line without penalty even if air quality suffers.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton said she will review federal drilling policies and the exclusion zones where there is now a moratorium on offshore drilling. Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, indicated he will introduce an energy bill, including provisions for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, after this past weekend's Republican retreat.
In that light, the California crisis looks less like a harbinger of spreading energy doom than a convenient steppingstone to a new federal policy strong on exploration and ready to accept risks to the environment.
America has needed a coherent energy policy, and there is nothing wrong with a national-interest push to reduce dependency on foreign oil. But near-term security gains must be carefully balanced against the risks of long-term and irrevocable harm, especially in what is now pristine wilderness.
There is no certainty that economically recoverable oil exists beneath the Alaska refuge. More than 20 studies have led to widely varying geological estimates. Pro-exploration forces claim as much as 16 billion barrels -- equivalent to three decades of Saudi Arabian imports -- but the U.S. Geological Survey puts the probability of such a massive, Prudhoe Bay-sized field at less than 5 percent.
The government's best guess so far -- and all of the estimates are just educated guesses -- is that refuge drilling might yield 3.2 billion barrels from four smaller scattered fields, a domestic supply increase of about 2 percent. Alone, that amount of oil would meet American demand for about six months, but it wouldn't be available for seven to 10 years.
Bush has campaigned on a belief that environmentally sensitive oil exploration is possible, and there have been successes. But in a nation that consumes 25 percent of the world's oil, equal gains ought to be attainable through better energy conservation efforts and uses of alternative fuels.