<% dim title,thedate,br title="A Gift from Above, Below" thedate="April 12, 2003" br="
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By Jim Poserina

On Friday, the United States House of Representatives agreed, by a vote of 245 to 187, to, among other things, allow petroleum exploration in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The bill will be on the Senate calendar sometime next month where it faces an uncertain future; Democrats have already vowed to filibuster.

As former President Ronald Reagan was fond of saying from time to time, this reminds me of a funny story. A man hunkered down inside his house as a fierce rainstorm pounded his town. As the floodwaters rose, he was forced to leave his house. Treading water in the lake that had once been his town, he prayed to God for deliverance. Then from behind a building came a man in a rowboat. "Get in, let me take you to safety," the man in the boat said. "Oh no, I have prayed to God," said our hero, "and he will deliver me from this flood." The man in the boat begged him to climb aboard but his efforts were fruitless. Eventually he rowed away. The man prayed to God for deliverance once again. A few minutes later, a second boat came by, but again, the man refused to get in the boat. As the second boat drifted off, he prayed to God once again. And wouldn't you know it, but a third boat appeared and, well, you guessed it. After the third boat left, the man drowned.

As he went up to Heaven, he stood at the Pearly Gates where St. Peter allowed him to enter. Once inside, he went up to God and demanded to know why his prayers had gone unanswered and he had been forsaken. God replied, "What more do you want? I sent you three boats!"

For whatever reason, the world's supply of petroleum is primarily buried deep beneath either countries that are hostile or at best lukewarm towards us (Middle East), or countries that are too unstable politically to even take the time to think what they are towards us (Venezuela). Fortunately, God, Nature, Chance, whatever has given us oil and put it underneath Alaska where it won't bother anybody. And you thought Seward's Folly was just about coal and silver. He put that oil there because He wanted us to have it.

But some people don't want us to have it. They are treading water, waiting for the miracle to come while the rowboats come and leave.

Like it or not, the U.S. runs on oil. If you can get some, put it in your DeLorean and set the time circuits to 1973 and 1979 to see what happens when there isn't enough to go around. It was enough to make Jimmy Carter familiar with those two little words, "one term."

The United States grew up much differently than did Europe, which, according to comedian Eddie Izzard, "is where the history comes from," and thus they should be recognized as two different entities. It is true that Europe uses less oil than the U.S. does. One reason for that is that the 15 member nations of the European Union have 37 percent more people in 67 percent less area than the United States; their population density is 299 people per square mile compared to only 73 in the U.S., or less than one quarter.*

So if you live in a place that's four times more crowded, places aren't going to be as far away. Many European cities are more than a thousand years old and were designed primarily for pedestrian traffic. Geographically, Europe is much more compact than the United States, which allowed it developed a much more efficient system of railways. Since the average EU nation is one-tenth the size of the U.S., long-distance road trips are much less common.

The U.S. had different beginnings. Early America was much more of an agrarian society and thus towns were more spread out. Immigrants arrived on the East Coast and along with the native-born gradually moved west. Farms, ranches, and homesteads took hold and soon everyone was far away from each other. Many counties in western Nebraska even today have only two or three towns.

The automobile is simply essential in a country as large as the United States, the world's fourth-largest nation, especially one built so relatively late. To insist otherwise is to ignore reality.

The federal government owns most of the west, including 86 percent of Nevada, and large expanses of Alaska, with no real constitutional authority to do so. ANWR should be turned over to the State of Alaska.

ANWR is an area roughly the size of South Carolina, home to some five to fifteen billion barrels of black gold. Current petroleum extraction technology has evolved considerably since the days of the nodding dinosaurs dotting the prairies of Texas and Oklahoma. Some estimates suggest that all of that oil can be sucessfully harvested with the use of only about two thousand acres of land for the equipment, and as a concession that two-thousand-acre figure became a stipulation in the House version of the bill. A smudge the size of a shopping mall on a window the size of South Carolina.

If we were to drill in Alaska, surely there would be less demand for Middle Eastern oil. If environmentalists truly cared about Mother Earth, they would appreciate that the environmental toll on the Middle East would subside and the burden of drilling on the Earth would be gently distributed rather than sharply concentrated. But no, it's only an environmental problem if it happens in our country, the rest of the world be damned.

Not only do modern oil drills use less land to pump a given amount of petroleum, but they do it much more cleanly than their counterparts from yesteryear. There is already drilling going on in Alaska (remember the Alaska Pipeline?) and there is nothing to suggest that the animals have any problems with it. There are actually more animals around the equipment than in more remote areas.

Even one of Alaska's U.S. Senators has said that most of those that oppose drilling in ANWR have never even been there. I was planning a transcontinental road trip this summer on which I would have driven up the Dalton Highway through ANWR towards Prudhoe Bay. Because my truck is getting older and the prospect of undergoing reconstructive foot surgery (which seems more and more inevitable) is looming for this year, I had to postpone it.

There's a doctrine called senatorial courtesy that has to do with the confirmation of a new federal judge. If Senators from the states over which the new judge is going to have jurisdiction vote against confirmation, then the rest of the Senate, regardless of their own opinions on the matter, should also vote to deny confirmation. Drilling in Alaska has benefits for all fifty states and the costs (if any) would be borne by one state. If the Congressional delegation of that one state is in favor of drilling, then the rest of Congress should not stand in the way. ANWR should belong to Alaska; if it did, we wouldn't be having this discussion, and the decision would not be left up to people from Massachusetts, Delaware, Kentucky, or South Dakota.

To solve the oil dilemma exclusively by championing hybrid automobiles is to do nothing. I've never understood why this debate has always been presented as a choice between drilling and hybrid cars. The solution is to do both. Harvest the oil and work on efficient vehicles at the same time. The wrong answer is that it has to be one or the other.

If the energy policy was established as faith in hybrids and other technology, consider the consequences. If gasoline prices were to double or triple, you would have to either buy a hybrid or keep using your old car. You would have to go out and buy a brand new car, and you would be stuck with an old one because who in the market for a new set of wheels would buy an old gasoline car? And those not financially able to buy a new car wouldn't see very many new-tech autos in the used car section of the classified ads. They would be stuck with the same car they already had and would have to just deal with the high gas prices. What do you say to them?

Relying on new tech cars as the answer would require years to bear fruit, even once the technology is perfected and widely available. As an example, when the color television became a general merchandise item, it took more than twenty years for the U.S. households to fully make the changeover from black and white to color. Now imagine trying to do the same thing with a product that is between 40 and 100 times more expensive and, in the grand scheme of things, much more important. Since cars don't last as long as televisions, let's say it only takes twelve years. Okay, fine. What do we do until then?

Critics say that there isn't that much oil there. But they're not sure, it's only a guess. But even if there isn't, it will still be enough to last us until they say the new cars will be readily available, which is just around the corner. Of course, electric cars have been just around the corner since the 1939 World's Fair. Or at least they used to be. Just this week Hyundai annouced that they are cancelling their electric car; all remaining unsold models will either be put in museums or salvaged for parts.

I mentioned above that I drive a truck. And yes, it's an SUV, a 1993 Ford Explorer XLT. SUVs are an easy scapegoat. First off, for the record, my Explorer gets about 15 percent better gas mileage than my previous car, a Chevy Caprice. SUVs are popular simply because Detroit no longer makes full-size cars. I also did not jump on the SUV bandwagon; I remember telling my friends that I wanted an SUV when I was 15. More than 90 percent of the driving I did with my learner's permit was with a full-size van, so I've always been used to and prefer driving a large vehicle. Learning to drive using a van teaches you how to handle it properly. That is also the reason why SUVs are involved in a disproportionate number of accidents. It's because the people driving them drive them as if they are cars and have neither the respect for nor the understanding of how a truck handles. I blame the criminal, not the gun; I blame the driver, not the SUV.

Granted, SUVs come in sizes, from small (Ford Explorer) to medium (Ford Expedition, Chevy Tahoe) to large (Ford Excursion, GMC Suburban) to extra large (Hummer), and I drive a small. And granted that the large and extra large, compared to their gas mileage, is probably overkill. But no one complains about vans, which get roughly the same fuel economy, in the 12 mpg range. No one says anything about panel trucks, or tractor-trailers, or diesel commuter trains (the Long Island Railroad recently spent a lot of money on new hybrid diesel-electric trains rather than simply electrifying the remaining few miles that are still in the 19th Century). And no one even bats an eye at the weird old man that lives down the block who still drives a 1972 Cadillac Eldorado that probably gets eight miles per gallon.

Religious people pray for God to deliver them. And deliver them He might. But in the meantime, as for me, I say get in the boat.

* According to the Time Almanac 2000, the 15 member states of the EU (Austria, Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Finland, the Netherlands, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany) comprise 1,251,900 square miles and have a combined population of 374,324,532. The United States has an estimated population of 272,818,000 and an area of 3,761,363 square miles. These figures are from 1999. The 2000 Census put the U.S. population at just over 281 million, but I used the 1999 numbers to keep everything consistent.