Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The Norton Anthology of Total B.S.

Gale Norton and I have something in common. We both did something stupid yesterday. Though sick with flu, I stayed up way too late reading Daredevil comics from the mid-eighties period, when Frank Miller took full creative control and it started getting good.

Gale Norton, meanwhile, embarassed herself in the national press, at the worst possible time. Her editorial, wincingly titled "Call of the Mild," describes all the technological advances that will allow energy companies to drill huge holes in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge while leaving "no significant impact." Perhaps she felt it was well-timed, since Nicholas Kristof just pronounced environmentalism dead in the same paper, and Americans (ever fickle on this issue) don't seem to want oil companies drilling in ANWR at the moment. But her argument is weak, and rather than pushing hard on the foreign-oil dependence (which seems the only likely argument to win the public over) Gail Norton chose to try to convince us that extracting many billions of oil barrels will have no significant environmental impact. The consequences of transporting the oil alone are impossible to accurately gauge, and certainly cannot be guaranteed to have no significant impact, not to mention the exploratory drilling, waste management, risk of contamination.

But there are a few more insidious problems with Norton's direction in this debate, some of which were addressed by today's NYT editorial.

As the NYT points out, the possible yield from ANWR is, at best, only a tiny percentage of our growing oil consumption. Norton implies that drilling ANWR will solve, or at least begin to solve, the problem of foreign oil dependence and consumption growth, but she embeds an enormous lie between the following sentences:

As part of a comprehensive energy strategy of promoting conservation and reducing dependence on foreign oil, we must increase our energy production here at home. The 1002 area is potentially the largest untapped source of oil and gas on American soil

So, first, Norton implies that "increased energy production here at home" refers exclusively to oil. This, of course, is false. Clean and renewable energy stand to increase our energy production far beyond the capacity of a new oil source, with little to no environmental impact. Clean energy doesn't have a strong lobby yet, but that's another matter. Second, Norton implies that our foreign oil dependence is due to a lack of "tapped" resources, rather than to a lack of resources altogether combined with exponential consumption growth. ANWR may be the "largest untapped source" in the country, but that actually says nothing at all about the problem.

The NYT also rightly observes that Norton's aggressive campaign to sell the public on arctic drilling reveals the "shallowness" of Bush's energy plan, particularly its myopic focus on increasing immediate oil supply. While simply condemning this focus as "wrong" is a good start, I think it's worth making perfectly clear why the Bush strategy focuses so hard on increased domestic supply. Domestic energy companies have an enormous influence on politics and campaign finance, and they want to bid on new, lucrative development projects like drilling ANWR. Right now, the oil industry wields a little more power in Washington than bio-diesel advocates, so they're probably gonna get their way on this one. Don't get me wrong, I totally think that Bush is stupid enough to ignore both science and economics, and decide that ANWR oil will actually provide singlehanded solution to the supply problem, but his stupidity has never prevented him from figuring out which side of the bread contains butter.

All things considered I think Norton and Bush will have a tough time convincing the public that ANWR can be safely drilled. However, they're much more likely to be able to convince the public that we don't give a shit about the arctic caribou, especially when placed in the context of skyrocketing prices at the pump. So keep your eyes peeled for more bad science and worse economics from Gale and friends. You'll be able to recognize them because they'll be introduced with awful, awful literary puns.

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