“It’s not as if this is the Grand Canyon,” said a former energy spokesman for the Bush campaign in response to an assault on the president’s proposal to open up the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and natural gas exploration and development.

“It’s interesting that the Alaskans — their officials and local citizens — are not opposed to this. The reality is it’s not a big tourist trade. There’s not a lot of snack bars in ANWR,” countered William Martin, who is now chairman of Washington Policy & Analysis Inc., during a debate over President Bush’s national energy plan on National Public Radio (NPR) last week. Granted, “it is an important environmental heritage of our country. But the reality is it is only a very small footprint that we’re talking about” drilling in, he noted.

“I would rather concentrate production where there’s a lot of potential in a certain area than to go somewhere in the Lower 48…near the populations or offshore California.”

Daniel Lashof of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said the Bush administration’s claim that only a small part of ANWR (about 8%) would be disrupted by the drilling was “very misleading.” It failed to mentioned that the targeted area is at the “biological heart” of the refuge, he noted.

“There’s just no way — even with all of the better technology that the industry has today — you can develop oil [and gas] there without spreading [the] development over a significant portion of this biologically sensitive area,” he insisted during the one-on-one debate with Martin. “It’s going to be…a huge sprawling, industrial complex. There’ll be pipes [and] roads connecting derricks.”

Martin argued that the alternative would be to build 50,000 windmills with 150-foot blades, which he estimated would be equal to one million barrels per day of crude oil production. “…Imagine the environmental nightmare of trying to locate those on good sites along our coasts.”

Public reaction to the president’s ANWR proposal appears to be mixed, judging from the callers into the NPR broadcast on Monday. An elderly caller from Dallas, TX, called Alaska a “red herring” issue. “I’m never going to go up there. My grandchildren are never going to go up there, [so] we don’t care” if ANWR is drilled, he said.

But others believe drilling in ANWR is bad energy and environmental policy. Bush’s ANWR proposal “is just an indication of the wrong direction [in which] the administration is trying to take our country. It doesn’t appear to be a significant contribution to our needs [and] it puts a lot at risk,” said a caller from Oklahoma.

Lashof agreed, noting that even if ANWR were opened to drilling, the nation still would be 50% dependent on foreign sources for its energy needs. The “best estimate” says that ANWR holds up to 3 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil, which is about a six-month U.S. supply, he noted. “It’s folly to think that we can drill our way out of dependence on foreign oil” by opening up ANWR.

Responding to Martin’s comments about ANWR, a Virginia caller said, “I would put it that ANWR is a huge snack bar for multitudes of issues that would be lost by the intrusion of man.” She noted that she visited Valdez, AK, a few years back and found it to be one of the most beautiful places in the world, except for the sight of the Alaskan oil pipeline.

The public’s divisiveness over ANWR is surely to be reflected in Congress, which will have the final say on the controversial issue. “Congress has already said they will not open the [Arctic refuge], so we’re going to see a big fight,” Martin said.

Martin and Lashof also locked horns over the Bush energy plan’s support for coal and clean-coal technology. It’s “fundamentally a plan for the coal and oil industry and his [Bush’s] friends in that industry,” Lashof charged. Coal is the “dirtiest source of electricity,” and “clean coal is like safe cigarettes,” he said, calling it a “public relations ploy.”

“He talks about coal and oil as if they’re dirty words,” countered Martin. “We’re not going to leave behind coal and oil. It would be an economic disaster for the United States.”

The Bush energy package would provide about $2 billion in subsidies for clean-coal technology, Lashof said, and about $10 billion in tax and investment credits over a 10-year period for alternative fuel development and improvements in energy efficiency standards.

Lashof and Martin agreed on the need for greater energy efficiency in homes, businesses and in vehicles, but they were at odds over whether the federal government should set the standards for the market to follow. Lashof favored the Bush administration establishing the standards for the market, while Martin argued that changes in energy efficiency should be left entirely to the market.

Callers into the NPR broadcast also supported the move to greater energy efficiency and alternative fuel development, but they seriously questioned whether the federal government was going to shell out $30,000 to them to equip their homes with solar panels. The proposals to promote vehicle fuel efficiency didn’t go over too big with them.

“…I think these people who want to take us out of our cars and make us live a more primitive and constrained life are just nothing but a bunch of Marxist Socialists,” quipped the caller from Dallas, who conceded he was “kind of selfish.”

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