Arctic Oil Gets an Administration Gusher

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Interior Secretary Gale Norton, campaigning to win oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, had the urgency of a saleswoman falling short of her monthly quota.

"ANWR would supply every drop of petroleum for Florida for 29 years," she told a friendly audience at the Heritage Foundation yesterday, "New York for 34 years, Illinois for 43 years, California for 16 years or New Hampshire for 315 years."

So how many years would ANWR's oil keep the whole country fueled up?

Norton balked at the question. "When you look at it for the whole country, you really get somewhat of a deceiving picture," the secretary answered. She said that's "not the way this operates," and said the question "assumes that unless a source of energy is going to meet all of America's needs then it's not worth looking at."

For the record, ANWR's oil, using the administration's own estimates, would supply the whole country for 13 to 17 months before it runs out. But Norton's argument -- that it is acceptable to promise New Hampshire oil for three centuries but "deceiving" to ask about the whole country -- underscored the tension gripping ANWR-drilling proponents as Congress approaches another climactic decision on the Alaskan refuge this week.

In the afternoon, it was Labor Secretary Elaine Chao's turn. At a news conference at the National Press Club, Chao told the cameras that, according to "congressional estimates," the ANWR project could create a million jobs.

A million jobs? Chao repeated the forecast to incredulous reporters after the event. "Congress has made estimates that about a million people will be involved," she affirmed. Is that over the life of the project? "I don't think so," Chao said. "That's probably over a year or so."

A million jobs in one year would be so compelling that even environmental groups might be willing to chase the caribou out of ANWR. But Chao was a bit off. The Congressional Research Service, to which Chao directed reporters, put the job growth in the range of 86,000 to 245,000. The million-job forecast, it turns out, is not from Congress but from a conservative think tank and was based on a far larger project than the ANWR drilling.

Whatever you think about drilling in ANWR -- and pretty much everybody feels strongly -- it is a bit player in the world energy crisis. World demand for oil is soaring, and supplies are expected to start drying up in the coming decades. ANWR is forecast to satisfy just 4 percent of domestic demand -- and even Norton's hosts at Heritage have acknowledged that ANWR "will not dramatically bring down the global price of oil."

But you wouldn't know that watching Norton. The administration's Ahab, she has been fighting for drilling in ANWR for five years, only to see the proposal shot down in Congress each time. This week, some House Republican moderates are fighting to keep it out of the budget bill. And Captain Norton has returned to the Pequod.

Heritage offered about as sympathetic an audience as Norton could hope for. Arriving in her Lincoln Town Car (17 mpg), she was greeted at the conservative think tank by Ginny Thomas, the Supreme Court justice's wife, and introduced by President Ed Feulner, who called ANWR "a win-win situation."

But even here, the questions were gently skeptical. One questioner pointed out the tepid support for ANWR from oil companies, "leading some on Wall Street to say this is more of a political issue than an energy economics issue." Another person pointed out that Norton's forecast of a million barrels a day from ANWR was "somewhat underwhelming."

Norton mustered every conceivable argument for the project. She spoke of personal sacrifice: "I've been to ANWR, shivered outside in 75-below wind chill." She invoked Hurricane Katrina: "We've put a lot of eggs in one basket" in the Gulf of Mexico. She tried the wasteland argument: "It contains no trees, deep water lakes or mountain peaks. . . . Kids go out on the playground even when it's 40 degrees below zero." And she reached for the panic button: "America is on the cusp of an energy crisis!"

At one point, Norton introduced Oliver Leavitt, a resident of the ANWR area who favors the drilling. Feulner tried to start a round of applause, but nobody joined in, and Leavitt sat down quickly. Later, the secretary surprised the free marketers in the audience by saying the administration would accept legislation requiring "that ANWR oil be sold here in the United States."

Three hours later, Norton joined Chao at the press club, to deliver much of the same speech: the "75-below wind chill" line, the "eggs in one basket" line and the line about the absence of trees in ANWR. To underscore this point, she displayed a photo of the refuge in winter, looking like the moon.

Chao, taking her turn at the microphone, reminded everybody that the drilling would occur in just "a tiny portion" of land, making an itsy-bitsy sign with her thumb and index finger.

The reporters sounded dubious. Does she have the votes? Isn't time running out? Won't it be pushed off until next year? "We need to focus attention this week," Norton urged. "This is the critical time for a decision being made on ANWR." At least, that is, until the next time.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company