By Donella Meadows
–February 2, 1989–
Environmentalists, waiting hopefully to see whether George Bush is indeed one of them, got a puzzling mixed message this week.
Bush’s Secretary of State James Baker, in a rousing speech to delegates from 40 nations, said that the world cannot wait for solid evidence before acting on the greenhouse problem. The U.S. and the world must focus on energy conservation, reforestation, and pollution reduction. Energy conservation will also reduce dependence on foreign oil and cut the trade deficit, Baker said. (He might have added that it will reduce acid rain, urban air pollution, oil spills, nuclear waste, and consumer’s energy bills).
But on the same day, as if the right hand of this new administration did not know what the left was doing, the President proposed new tax incentives to spur oil and gas exploration.
Furthermore, Bush has been silent about a last-ditch attempt by the Reagan administration to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling. On his final day in office Interior Secretary Donald Hodel proposed that the government swap 166,000 acres inside the refuge (where there may be oil) for 896,000 “pristine” (oil-less) acres outside it.
Bush said during his campaign, “I’d like to see us open up that Refuge.” He also said he was an environmentalist.
If he is an environmentalist, he should see 1. that exploration tax cuts and drilling permits will trash the Wildlife Refuge twice over, 2. that they will worsen the greenhouse problem, and 3. that there are better, cheaper, and more certain ways to provide the nation with energy.
The first trashing of the Refuge will come from the physical damage of roads, gravel pits, drilling pads, pipelines, oil spills, garbage, air pollution, toxic dumps. Oil may or may not be discovered, but the wilderness will no longer be a wilderness.
The second, more important, and more permanent devastation of the Refuge — and of the Midwest grain belt, the coastal lowlands, perhaps the whole nation — will come if a lot of oil is found. The more oil we burn, the more carbon dioxide we put in the atmosphere, the more greenhouse warming there will be. That warming will threaten all ecosystems, but especially those near the poles where the climate change will be greatest. Some Arctic wildlife might survive oil drilling, but little if any will survive the greenhouse effect.
Geologists say there is a 19 percent chance of finding 3.2 billion barrels of oil in the Refuge. That’s enough oil to power the nation fully for just six months (it would not be used that way, of course — it would be pumped out gradually over 20 years). There’s a one percent chance of finding three times that much.
For the sake of argument let’s assume that 3.2 billion barrels do actually exist under the Refuge. Call that amount one ANWR.
According to calculations by Robert K. Watson of the Natural Resources Defense Council, by increasing vehicle fuel efficiency, the nation could save seven ANWRs worth of oil by the year 2020. (That assumes an increase in average mileage to 60 miles per gallon for cars and 45 mpg for light trucks by the year 2008. Volvo, Renault, and Toyota all now have running prototype cars that get 60-100 mpg.)
Increased mass transit ridership could save the nation another ANWR of oil between now and the year 2020. Weatherizing houses could save three ANWR. Another 1.5 ANWR could be gained from using more efficient space and water heaters in existing houses. Still more could be saved with efficiency improvements in other transportation sectors, in insulating windows, and in industry.
Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute calculates that with presently known technologies the nation could cut its energy use by THREE-FOURTHS without any loss of energy services, and at a cost below $10 per barrel of oil saved. That’s the equivalent of discovering a new ANWR EVERY NINE MONTHS FOREVER, with a probability not of 19% but of 100%, with a saving in energy expenditures of hundreds of billions of dollars, and with environmental benefits beyond price — including a great reduction in the greenhouse effect.
More oil, especially artificially cheap, taxpayer-subsidized oil, will not bring about energy conservation. A stiff tax on oil will. ANWR will not solve our energy problems. Aggressive efficiency improvements will. There is only one purpose for exploration tax breaks or drilling in ANWR — to enrich oil companies at public expense. All other purposes, from national security to economic necessity, are achieved better, faster, less expensively, and more certainly with energy efficiency.
If George Bush is more of an environmentalist than a Texas oil man, he will see that. He will defend the few remaining wilderness areas of our country as timeless resources held in trust by present generations for all future generations. He will recognize the greenhouse effect as the most serious threat to the nation’s and the world’s security and do everything in his power to promote exactly the measures his Secretary of State has articulated so clearly.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989