Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Developing the pristine

Remarkably enough, I have made no mention on this blog about the Senate’s recent vote to keep plans for drilling in ANWR tucked away in a budget resolution. Mostly, I ignored this because I was sick. Now that I’m feeling better, I thought I’d talk a little about it.

To begin with, I suspect that lots of folks outside the environmental community wonder what’s the big deal with drilling in ANWR. As the pro-drilling trope goes, the place is something like 17.5 million acres of wilderness, and they only want to drill in 8%. Can that be so bad? Well, what’s bad is that the 8% they want to drill in is a) highly sensitive tundra and b) smack dab in the middle of calving grounds for the Porcupine herd. Tundra takes hundreds of years to recover from human impacts and, boy howdy, oil drilling creates serious impacts. Likewise, ain’t no caribou in the world gonna give birth next to some howling turbines driving an oil pump. Fact is, for less than 1 year’s worth of oil, drilling in ANWR is going to fuck up some mighty pretty stuff.

But, and this is key, the battle over ANWR isn’t really about oil and it isn’t really about caribou. Nope. The battle over ANWR is really just a skirmish (and possibly a distraction) over the larger effort by the Bush Administration to rape, deflower and despoil as much pristine wilderness as it can. I know that sounds crazy, but I’m serious.

The Bushies aren’t stupid. They know they can’t always run the government. At some point, the American people will wake up and put someone else in. What then? The Bushies are still going to want to extract as much oil, natural gas and fossil fuels as they can. In the past, environmentalists (and the DOI) have been able to argue against development projects if they would intrude into pristine areas. There might not be an explicit law preventing resource development, but it was easy to point out intrinsic values of undeveloped land, natural beauty, tourist uses, etc. Those sorts of argument will be unavailing, however, if resource extraction has begun already.

Thus, over the last four years (and over the coming four), the Bush Administration has driven hard to hand out as many drilling licenses as it possibly could in our Western states. As a result, we’re not just seeing battles over drilling in ANWR, but oil drilling in the Otero Mesa, coalbed methane development in the Valle Vidal, and natural gas development on the Rocky Mountain Front Range. All of these places are beautiful, wild areas that oil companies have been trying to get into for years. Those companies know that if they can get a foot in the door, those places will never be the same and they’ll never have to leave.