By Gloria Borger
U.S. News & World Report
March 25, 2002 (4/1/02 issue)

Pity the poor caribou. There they are, minding their own business, roaming silently in the snow and soft tundra of the desolate Arctic landscape. Then, suddenly, they're everywhere: migrating through green Web sites worldwide, their survival the subject of urgent concern. If Big Oil starts drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, enviros say, the lovely reindeer are at risk. Antlers, unite!

Enough already. The caribou are fine. In fact, since exploration started around Alaska's Prudhoe Bay in 1968, the local herd has thrived. And in case you're interested, the polar bears roaming

anwr are doing nicely, too. But don't get confused: This fight over 2,000 Arctic acres is not about wildlife. It's not even about oil. It's about political theology-and a small piece of land that has become a huge symbol and great fodder for fundraising. "We need a poster on the wall, and here it is," says Bruce Babbitt, ex-Clinton interior secre-tary, who opposes drilling in anwr yet keeps a certain perspective on it. "Why do we spend so much time quarreling over this tiny sliver that has no real implication for energy independence?"

Good question. Here we are, in a war likely to expand throughout the world's oil-producing region, and we're importing 57 percent of our oil-including 790,000 barrels a day indirectly from our buddy, Saddam Hussein. Has this focused the nation on a serious plan for both conservation and production? Hardly. Competing energy plans are stuck in Congress, which is oddly bent on choosing either conservation or production-and could get nothing as a result. "Energy policy doesn't have to involve either-or choices," says Tony Knowles, Alaska's pro-development Democratic governor. Then again, he hasn't spent much time in Congress lately.

To wit: The Senate disgraced itself recently when it killed a gradual increase in gasoline mileage standards for cars that could save as many as 1 million barrels a day. Soon it will most likely kill any drilling in anwr, which might have provided a small start in the right direction. "We shouldn't let this debate paralyze a real debate over energy policy," says John Holdren, an environmental policy guru at Harvard, who opposes anwr drilling. But it has. "People have given up on the really big issues" like clean-air policy and climate control, he adds.

That's because anwr is too easy to spin. Consider the numbers: Drilling proponents say that anwr will produce a tremendous amount of oil; opponents counter that it's a mirage, less than a six-month supply. The truth is that no one really knows. Kenneth Bird, leader of a U.S. Geological Survey project that studied the potential for oil in the refuge, says the range of "technically recoverable" oil is somewhere between a relatively modest 4.3 billion and 11.8 billion barrels. Different groups use different numbers. "One could spend the entire day writing letters to the editor," Bird sighs. What's more, his estimates were done in 1985. "We might be able to see more with modern seismic equipment," he says. But is anybody proposing a new federal study? Of course not.

Then there's the Big Oil argument. To hear the opponents tell the story, oil companies are salivating at the prospect of drilling in anwr. They're not-at least not now, because oil prices aren't high enough and they're not clamoring to spend the next decade in litigation. In fact, says Babbitt, "oil companies might not bother with it." So why is the administration pushing it? Because oil prices are bound to go up-and Republicans like oil production, which has become a popular national security issue.

And what about the environment? Sure, there's bound to be some impact. Technology has advanced, but drilling is never going to be a perfectly clean business. Purists say that's enough to bag the effort, even though no one is predicting ecological disaster. "I asked an environmentalist whether he would oppose the drilling if it were on just 1 acre, and he said he would," says a pro-drilling Democrat, Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana. "How can you fight that ideology?"

You can't. There's too much at stake here politically for either side to give. And so the nation continues to feed its oil addiction without increasing homegrown production. Meantime, real energy policy languishes while the symbols thrive. And the poor caribou start looking more like Chicken Littles every day.

Gloria Borger is also a CBS News special correspondent.

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