Alaska's moderate Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles apparently has been successful where the Republican Congress wasn't in convincing the Clinton administration that our nation must produce more domestic oil and that it can be done without a terrible cost to the environment. That's good news for the nation's economy and our national defense.
It's also good for Alaska, which -- with 99 percent of the state's land owned by the federal or state governments and thus not on the state's tax rolls -- derives 80 percent of its revenue from the oil industry.
When Congress passed legislation in 1995 to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, President Clinton -- under fierce pressure from environmental interests -- vetoed the bill. But last week, in response to a request by Knowles two years ago, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt announced a plan to resume oil development in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
"This is a good plan based on sound science," Babbitt said, echoing Knowles' language last spring in his recommendations for opening the oil reserve.
Under Babbitt's plan about 4 million acres will be made available for oil and gas exploration. This is encouraging, since about 25 percent of the nation's oil comes from Alaska and that is declining as Prudhoe Bay's oil production dwindles. A reliable oil and gas leasing program in the NPR-A would provide the federal government revenues from bonus bids, taxes and royalties; would help reduce America's dependence on foreign oil and help reduce our international trade deficit.
But Babbitt's plan is not yet a "done deal." The public has about 20 days left to respond to the Interior Department's plan and a number of environmental groups, angry that any development would be allowed in the reserve no matter what protections are provided, oppose the plan.
If the administration does not cave in this time and the plan is approved, Alaska and the oil companies may get a chance to prove what Knowles insists is true: "With sound science, prudent management and the best available technology," Alaska and the oil companies "can reduce the footprint of development and responsibly develop our resources while protecting wildlife and the environment."
Environmentalists have demonized the oil industry for decades, blaming it for virtually all the sins of the industrial age. As we approach the 21st century, Alaska and the oil companies deserve the chance to prove environmentalists wrong. Thanks to Knowles' leadership, Babbitt's plan may finally give them the chance.
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