Digging for trouble: why Alaska's pipeline will not solve oil woes

President George W. Bush needs to stop considering oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. You don’t have to be an environmentalist to feel that way, either.

Drilling in ANWR, according to its proponents, would supposedly fix our dependency on volatile imported oil markets, especially those in the Middle East. Superficially, it looks like a great deal: By increasing domestic oil production, we reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite that simple.

You may already know that less than a year’s worth of oil lies in ANWR, and that the lower 48 states would not see any of it for at least 10 years. There are some endangered animals that a few people care about, too, I understand. Those facts aren’t terribly important because those facts alone won’t stop the push for drilling.

Remember that the oil is in northern Alaska. Oil coming out of Alaska is shipped through Valdez, which is in southern Alaska, where the ocean isn’t blocked with ice all year. As a result, it must be transported through the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company’s 800-mile-long Trans Alaska Pipeline, which carries 17 percent of domestic oil production at present.

Most of the pipeline is above ground — read “”vulnerable”” — and during winter, it’s difficult to access or repair, according to Alyeska.

Alyeska spokesman Tim Woolston said that it is “”a monumental task to protect every inch of that pipeline 24 hours a day.””

The U.S. Army proved that it’s more than “”a monumental task”” to defend the pipeline: It’s impossible. A 1975 Los Angeles Times story reported that the Army concluded that it was “”impossible to prevent determined saboteurs from shutting down TAPS for a year or more.””

Not much has changed since then.

What’s worse, you don’t even have to be a determined saboteur to shut down the pipeline — just drunk. A drunken Alaska resident, Daniel Lewis, punctured it with one shot from his 0.338-caliber rifle. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil leaked and the pipeline was shut off for two-and-a-half days.

The loss: $60 million in delayed oil shipments alone. The scary part: This mishap occurred after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, on Oct. 4, 2001.

Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, who strongly supports North Slope oil development, said: “”Clearly, the fact that one person with a rifle can do this much damage is a point of concern in terms of vulnerability.”” Clearly, he is a master of understatement.

Essentially, the Trans Alaska Pipeline is a vital part of our economy and because it is one big, impossible-to-defend pipe, it is the biggest and easiest terrorist target in the country.

So our government thinks that we should reduce our diversified foreign oil dependency by shifting it to a centralized, decaying and vulnerable piece of domestic infrastructure? That doesn’t make any sense to me.

Only 22 percent of imported oil comes from the volatile Middle East; we import most of the rest from safer sources in the Western Hemisphere. If we want to reduce dependence on Middle Eastern oil, that’s great. I’m against importing $500 million worth of “”evil”” Iraqi oil every year as much as the next guy. But let’s eliminate that dependency in a way that makes sense.

We can eliminate the need to import Middle Eastern oil by improving energy efficiency at home and on the road. That means buying energy-efficient appliances, driving cars that are more fuel-efficient, and driving less, period. EPA reports indicate that improving nationwide automotive fuel economy by three miles per gallon is all it would take to make imported Middle Eastern oil a relic.

What does this mean? Quit buying gas-guzzling vehicles and quit driving them alone everywhere. No one can force you to quit, but you should remember that your private decisions have public consequences. If you can’t be bothered to get out of your car and walk or bicycle once in a while — to make some changes in your life — you are part of the reason we have to worry about bastards like Saddam Hussein.

Efficiency is not austerity and I hope that lazily sitting behind a steering wheel isn’t your only joy in life. You might even like the world outside your car. If you can bike when it’s practical to do so — say, to work or your local supermarket — do it. A $20 rack holds two bags of groceries. Get one and use it. You’ll go to the store more often, but you’ll save money on gas, exercise your legs, and clear your conscience.

The day after the terrorist attacks, Bush said that “”we will not allow this enemy to win the war by changing our way of life.”” Not even if it means that we must continue being myopic about drilling in ANWR and that we must keep wasting energy to maintain our ties to Middle Eastern tyrants? Give me a break.