Drilling for Sentimental Reasons

New Yorkers used to ask each other, "Where were you when the lights went out?" The lights went out in 1965, in a blackout that was a unique New York adventure. After the blackout of 1977, the earlier adventure lost its uniqueness, and the blackout of 2003 not only deprived the 1965 episode of its special status, it destroyed the sense of exclusivity. The 1965 episode had been an initiation rite into the special status of being a New Yorker. When you have 50 million people to share your status with, it becomes a lot less special. By the time you find someone who didn't have a stake in the Blackout of 2003 you've probably reached California. Californians have their own problems.

One of the first reactions to the blackout was to question whether it was the work of terrorists. For some reason, it felt reassuring to know we'd done it to ourselves. It brought new meaning to Walt Kelly's classic line, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

Once terrorism was ruled out as the cause of the blackout, there was more finger pointing than in an Eeny Meeny Miney Mo marathon. It would have been a good time to know the lyrics to "Blame Canada," but nobody did, and it wasn't a good time to look them up on-line.

While the immediate cause of the blackout hasn't been determined, on Aug. 18 the New York Times reported that a bill that would have set standards for electric utilities and reduced the spread of the blackout has been held up in Congress as a result of partisan politics. The bill was stalled because it contains a provision for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the Republicans have refused to separate the oil drilling from the utilities regulation.

The proposal for oil exploration in the Wildlife Refuge came out of Vice-President Cheney's energy commission, although, like most of the ideas proposed by this administration, it appears to have been conceived well in advance of the meetings. The notion of extracting oil from the wildlife refuge hasn't been popular, for good reason -&endash; not the least of which is that there isn't very much oil there. Also, according to some geologists, the oil may be in small pockets which would make it difficult to extract, and it would take about 10 years before any of the oil became available. The Sierra Club has called the refuge one of America's national treasures, while the Defenders of Wildlife called it the crown jewel of America's refuge system.

Although de facto House leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas,m has said that anyone who opposes oil drilling in the Wildlife Refuge is an "environmental extremist," the reality is that drilling really isn't urgent or essential. In spite of this, the proposal turned up as part of an energy bill, then as part of an appropriations bill, and when that was defeated in the Senate, got tagged onto the electric utilities regulations. This proposal has more lives than a movie villain.

It sort of makes you wonder why President Bush is so very determined to get the bill passed. One guess is that it's sentiment. The proposal for oil exploration in the Wildlife Refuge may have been the first time our president was caught giving inaccurate information in the hope of pushing through a plan that nobody particularly wanted. Since then he's graduated to bigger and better boondoggles, like offering tax cuts for the rich as a jobs program, or the WMD claims as grounds for invading Iraq, but the Arctic Wildlife Refuge was where he got started.

In March 2001, according to the UK Guardian, Interior Secretary Gale Norton assured Congress that wildlife stayed at least a mile away from any proposed drilling area. Shortly after, Ian Thomas of the US Geological Survey posted a map on the Internet showing that the area proposed for oil drilling is the primary birthing area of the caribou. When kept away from the costal plain, as would happen if drilling were permitted, caribou calf survival tends to be about 14% lower. Mr. Thomas was fired, apparently for violating an agency "communications directive" limiting the distribution of information about the Wildlife Refuge.

On Aug. 19, the New York Times reported that congressional leaders are unwilling to separate the proposals for regulation of the power grid from oil drilling and tax cuts for the oil industry.

On March 8, 2001, President Bush said, "We can do both -- taking out energy, and leaving only footprints. Critics of increased exploration and production ignore the remarkable technological advances in the last 10 years that have dramatically decreased the environmental impact of oil and gas exploration." On Jan. 23 he said, "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." It's a pattern.

The whole thing says a lot about leadership. You only need one man in the dark, and 50 million people follow.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y.

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