A former oilman says no to drilling in the Arctic


I come from a long line of Texas earth-divers: prospectors, trappers and explorers who have spent their lives in the successful pursuit of oil and gas. I am proud of our part in supplying the world with energy - in feeding this country - and am proud of how today's geologists have survived the volatility of the boom-and-bust markets of the past.

But because of my partnership in this family, I believe I have the responsibility to say "no" to drilling within Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

My goal is to turn, even slightly, the heart of one moderate representative or senator toward prudence and caution, rather than toward recklessness or arrogance. To persuade one more vote, just one, to not venture into the refuge with drilling equipment. To not sully the definition of the word "refuge."

When I discuss such things with my geologist friends, they often grow combative. "Have you even seen the Arctic?" they'll ask.

I have, although I have not seen the Liberty Bell, nor the original Declaration of Independence, nor the Sistine Chapel, nor many other things whose existence and undiluted integrity is important to me. And as a scientist, I know that the Porcupine caribou herd might survive the exploration and drilling; though in that surviving, they will no longer be caribou, but some altered, domesticated thing, their movements and behaviors more akin to cattle.

And 10 or 20 years from now, with our rising sea levels, and the soggy, warming, CO2-releasing tundra - with our 120-degree summer days, and our vanishing groundwater, and our budget-busting dikes and levees being built frantically around our coastal cities, will any of this matter?

I believe that it will still matter - that it will matter more than ever.

Shall I tell you once again all the old familiar stories of the oil field, or of any extractive industry? Shall I remind you yet again of our country's worst myths - call them lies, if you wish, or at best, mistakes - that the forests will never vanish, and the tanker will never wreck? That the pipelines will never burst or even leak, and that our water wells will never become contaminated, and that if they do, the mining company will always, always have posted enough bond to cover the cost of the cleanup?

What greater message to send to the future than a message, for once, of thoughtfulness and prudence, and of pushing one's self away from the trough, rather than going into the last chapel to rob or gorge upon nothing less than the spirit of that place?

Cynics tell me that there's too much money at stake for the "general public" to have an ice cube's chance in hell of turning this thing back, or even holding the line. But I want to believe that 51 senators will be cautious with this immeasurable treasure: 51 who, even if not believing they know all the answers, or even all of the questions, will say "No, this isn't what the people want."

It's a lot harder to say no than yes. The extractive industries still run the show in the West, and Alaska. Big Oil is bigger than ever. Two-thirds of Montanans asked say they are against oil and gas leasing on the public lands of the Rocky Mountain Front, yet our governor and the new secretary of Interior are intent upon drilling there.

Regarding the protection of our national forests' last roadless areas, two-thirds of Idahoans commenting on the matter, and 78 percent of Montanans (and well over 70 percent of all Americans) favor such protection. Yet President Bush and the Republican party seek to overturn that policy. I know that corporations with their ever-increasing power are leading this nation into a government led by an elite minority.

Still, I believe that the depth of the wilderness' purity is vaster and more powerful than the short-term shelf life of corporate greed. The vote might be close, but I believe Congress will do the brave and hard and right thing here, not the soft and easy and deceptive thing.

Such a statement, such a stand, will be more valuable to us, and in the long run, more compassionate, at this point in our history, than any message we have heard in a long, long time.

Rick Bass is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). A former petroleum geologist, and author of 16 books, he lives in northwest Montana. This essay is part of a recently published collection about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (see page 15).

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Rick Bass

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