Some Shaky Figures on ANWR Drilling

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Congress loves to play fast and loose with numbers, particularly when one side or the other is using them to justify a bill. Two such cases came earlier this month, when the House approved oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. There are a total of 19 million acres in the refuge, and in 1980 Congress set aside 1.5 million of them along a strip of the refuge's northern Arctic Ocean coast for possible oil exploration. Oil companies and Alaska's congressional delegation have been anxious ever since to start drilling there. The oil companies believe 5 to 16 billion barrels of oil could be recovered there, while Alaskans are eager for the revenue that exploration would generate for their state. Environmentalists and most congressional Democrats have resisted drilling in the area because the required network of oil platforms, pipelines, roads and support facilities, not to mention the threat of foul spills, would play havoc on wildlife. The coastal plain, for example, is a calving home for some 129,000 caribou.

With U.S production at nearly a 50-year low and oil reserves in this country shrinking, George Bush has made ANWR's development a key part of his energy package. The House finally decided to approve drilling in the refuge, largely on the promise of two important numbers. First, to calm moderates in his party, Republican Congressman John Sununu of New Hampshire tacked an amendment to the energy bill limiting the drilling to just 2,000 of the 1.5 million acres along the coast plain. Then, the Teamsters muscled 36 Democrats into voting for the drilling, claiming it would create over 700,000 jobs.

Wow! An oil field only one-fifth the size of Washington's Dulles International Airport that'd provide more jobs than there are working men and women in Wyoming and Rhode Island? And would lower the nation's unemployment rate by a half percent? Sounds too good to be true.

It may be. Turns out the 2,000 acres don't have to be contiguous and only the space of the equipment touching the ground is counted. Each drilling platform can take up as little as 10 acres. The pipelines are above ground. For space purposes, the amendment counts only the ground touched by the stanchions holding up the pipe. Road widths also are conveniently left out of the space limit. "It's a complete sham," complains Allen Mattison, a spokesman for the Sierra Club which opposes drilling. "It's like a fishing net. If you count just the space of the string's width, that's small. But if you open up a fishing net and count the area it covers, that's much larger." Environmentalists complain that the House limit ends up allowing oil companies to spread out over practically the entire 1.5 million acres.

As for the 700,000 jobs, that number comes from an 11-year-old study commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute that economists complain wildly inflates the employment potential. "It's just absurd," says Eban Goodstein, an economist at Lewis and Clark College, who predicts the real job growth will be less than one-tenth that number.

But the oil industry is sticking by the figures. "We're confident we can develop the resources that are at ANWR without an impact on the wildlife that lives there," insists Mark Rubin, general manager for exploration and production with the American Petroleum Institute. For his part, Sununu complains that it wouldn't matter what number he had put in his amendment. Drilling opponents "don't support any disturbance of any land for any economic activity related to energy in the 19 million acres of ANWR," he says. "They think that 2,000 acres is too much. They think 200 acres is too much and they think two acres would be too much."

Democrats who control the Senate vow that legislation permitting ANWR drilling will never see the light of day in that chamber. The oil industry and the Teamsters, however, hope they can change some minds once more — with the same numbers that worked in the House.