Controversial drilling in Alaskan Wildlife Refuge central to Bush’s proposed energy budget

As expected President George W Bush has announced that drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a major part of his energy policy in his proposed budget for 2002, but the plan is already facing Congressional challenges.

Announcing his first proposed budget to Congress on 27 February (also see preceding story), Bush promised to increase domestic energy supplies without damaging the environment. “We can produce more energy at home while protecting our environment, and we must,” he said. “We can produce more electricity to meet demand, and we must. We can promote alternative energy sources and conservation, and we must.”

The Bush Administration says that it will open “a small part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas leasing and production in an environmentally responsible manner”, which new Interior Secretary Gale Norton says will only impact only about 2,000 acres. A week earlier, Norton argued before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that oil and gas exploration in the refuge, the US’s one remaining true wilderness, which is the size of Belgium, could be done with minimal threat to the environment.

In his proposed budget, Bush says that the drilling will generate an estimated $1.2 billion in bidding bonuses for the Federal Government from the winning bidders, assumed to become available in 2004, which will be used to fund research and development projects on solar power, wind energy, biomass power and fuels, geothermal energy, and other alternative energy technologies. Separately, the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, Frank Murkowski of Alaska, introduced a bill allowing drilling in the refuge on 26 February.

However, on 28 February, a bill was introduced both in the Senate and House of Representatives to make the refuge’s coastal plain, where exploration is proposed, a federal wilderness area and prevent drilling. The bill’s sponsors say that they already have initial support for the bill from over 100 lawmakers. The sponsors say that Bush’s proposal will threaten caribou, polar bears and other wildlife and cause environmental devastation, and argue that alternative energy-boosting policies exist. They already have the support of almost every US environmental organisation. The Sierra Club, one of the US’s premier environmental groups, says that evidence from energy experts and scientists proves that the amount of oil estimated to be in the refuge is just a fraction of US yearly consumption, which will not be available for several years. This, they say, will not make oil and gas exploration a viable option for solving California’s energy crisis, a principal reason for drilling.

In the same week, a poll by NGO, the Wilderness Society, showed in a new survey that 52% of Americans oppose drilling in the refuge, while 35% support it.

While they are not capable of replacing fossil fuels in the near-term, solar and renewable energy will be an important part the US’s long-term energy supply, Bush said. He proposed increasing the performance of existing solar and renewable research and development by “winnowing out those projects that are less promising and focussing on those areas that offer the greatest ability to tap or expand these new sources of energy”. The President wants to offer tax credits for the installation of rooftop solar equipment and an extension of the tax credits for fuel produced from renewable sources.

As coal is by far the most abundant US energy resource and will be required “for the foreseeable future”, Bush said, it is essential to “develop the technology to eliminate the environmental barriers to continued coal use and extend the life of existing coal plants”. He proposes a restructured coal research programme with more than $2 billion over 10 years to reduce the environmental impact of using coal, focusing on “avoiding historical handicaps and increasing research effectiveness”.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie