Lifestyles Left and Right

Politics In, Junk Out

Enviro bureaucrats at the U.S. Geological Survey don't really speak for the Bush administration -- and they certainly don't speak for science.

4.15.02

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Democrats in the Senate are in a froth over the Bush plan to open a small corner of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil extraction. Their allies in the environmental movement are in full Chicken Little mode.

There is much "priceless, pristine heritage" talk and predictions that all the caribou in ANWR will die of broken hearts if so much as a drop of oil is brought out of the ground there.

The hand-wringers got a boost late last month when a 75-page report by the Department of the Interior's U.S. Geological Survey concluded that oil drilling would endanger a particular herd of caribou who calve every spring on the ANWR coastal plain.

The report was leaked to the press, thus temporarily embarrassing Interior Secretary Gale Norton and giving fodder to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who does not want the issue to come to a vote for fear it will pass.

Several members of the USGS team that assembled the report had earlier signed a petition opposing oil extraction in ANWR, so the report fits their political point of view. Yet the dangers it predicts are hypothetical and -- keep this in mind -- are based on full development of the 100-mile-long ANWR coastal plain, not just the 2000-acre corner of it advocated by the Bush administration;

The study notes that in years when the caribou herd has been unable to use the plain because of late melting of snow, the number of calves declined. From that observation, it jumps to the conclusion that the existence of oil extraction in the neighborhood will cause stress to the caribou and, ipso facto, fewer calves.

Compare this dire warning to the reality of wildlife around the 400-mile Alyeska pipeline, which transports about a million gallons a day from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. A video I saw a few years ago showed caribou nonchalantly munching grass, oblivious to the pipeline a few feet from them.

Senator Joseph Lieberman is a vocal foe of oil extraction from ANWR. About the USGS report he said, "Maybe it is time for the administration to start listening to itself and rethink its position on the Arctic refuge." This bit of rhetoric is, of course, disingenuous. The report did not reflect the administration's position, but rather the convictions of a handful of USGS bureaucrats.

While they may earnestly believe that oil extraction would harm caribou reproduction, the fact is that the report's content and timing were skewed to aid a political cause. This is disturbingly reminiscent of the junk science used by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials to cut off water to Klamath Valley farmers in Oregon, supposedly to save the sucker fish. Of this ruling the National Academy of Sciences later said there was "no substantial scientific foundation for its [the USFWS'] April 2001 rulings..."

Earlier this year biologists at the U.S. Forest Service planted lynx fur in several places in a Washington state forest during a study to determine if the number of lynx was larger than had been supposed. A larger number would have increased the lynx habitat, triggering road closures and stopping tree-thinning, livestock grazing, skiing and snowshoeing.

Are these three incidents the beginnings of a pattern in which government specialists who we used to believe were objective employ junk science or manipulate data to achieve political ends they deem desirable? Let us hope not, but the outlook is not encouraging. The "scientists" who tilted the lynx study were "punished" by being given counseling sessions. Some punishment.

As for the reality at ANWR, the Chicken Little folks show photos of dazzling scenery, hinting that it will all disappear if any oil is extracted in a tiny corner of the area. On the ground, using state-of-the-art techniques, the oil drillers would make little visible dent on the coastal plain.

Senator Lieberman and others are fond of calling for greater use of "renewable" energy sources instead of oil. Take wind energy for example. A barrel of crude oil can generate approximately 520 kilowatts of electricity. A windmill generates about 178 kilowatts, or roughly one-third the amount. It is estimated that ANWR could produce one million barrels a day for approximately 30 years. To produce the equivalent amount of electricity, you'd need three million windmills. The average windmill requires approximately three acres of land, or nine million all told.

Let's see, Senator Lieberman. Connecticut has 3.1 million acres and Massachusetts, next door, has another 5.1 million. If we devoted them entirely to windmills, we just might make it.

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