Arctic Oil, Frozen Dialogue

On many issues, voters may not be clear if a President Gore or a President Bush would make a difference. But that shouldn't be the case on one issue: Oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge of Alaska.

George W. Bush favors it, while Al Gore doesn't. It's a classic energy versus environmental standoff. And with a Bush victory possible, the battle over this last giant onshore oil basin in the United States has heated up.

Many environmental groups are urging President Clinton to designate this South Caroline-size coastal plain on the Beaufort Sea as a national monument before he leaves office. That action would block oil development forever unless Congress overturns it.

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And last week, former President Carter, who signed the Alaska Lands Act in 1980, also called for Mr. Clinton to protect the refuge, which is home to such Arctic animals as musk oxen, caribou, and polar bears. A native-American tribe might also be affected if drilling is allowed.

That 1980 law was a balanced compromise between wilderness preservation and development. It led to drilling of the rich Prudhoe Bay oil field. But it left hanging the issue of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Now Carter says tourist dollars in wilderness areas have greatly helped Alaska's economy. State political leaders claim oil drilling wouldn't hurt the environment.

A 1998 government study estimated the refuge's recoverable oil reserves to be at least 6 billion barrels. The US consumes nearly 7 billion barrels a year. Tapping this reserve would lessen US dependence on foreign oil, but not by much.

Clinton has used the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate 10 national monuments since 1996. But his officials have not begun the process to protect the Arctic refuge.

That's the right move for now. Taking an end-of-term action on such a huge issue without working with Congress or letting voters weigh in at the polls would be wrong. The 1980 law required a political dialogue, and so does this issue.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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