The prospect of oil supply disruptions because of the Middle East crisis has reopened the debate over development of oil resources in environmentally sensitive areas of the United States.
Oil industry officials and legislators from western states are calling for exploratory drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, on federal lands in the lower 48 states, and offshore on the outer continental shelf. They also are urging Calfornia to permit Texaco Inc. and Chevron Corp. to begin producing oil from an existing platform off the California coast.
Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. supports the advocates of oil exploration.
But environmental groups are vigorously opposed to oil drilling in sensitive areas, arguing that the relatively small amounts of oil that might be found are not worth the risk. In their view, more oil can be saved through renewed conservation efforts than can be found through drilling.
At present, oil drilling on most of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and in the Alaskan refuge is prohibited by law or by presidential order. Chevron and Texaco have been prevented from operating their platform 50 miles off Santa Barbara at Point Arguello, which could produce an estimated 100,000 barrels a day, by California regulations that prohibit use of a pipeline to bring the oil to shore.
But the defense authorization bill for fiscal 1991, passed by the Senate Aug. 4, contains a provision that might change the rules. Under an amendment sponsored by Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), whenever the United States imports more than half its oil -- as it now does -- the president would be required to identify federal lands with oil potential and to develop a schedule for drilling on them.
Murkowski said he and the 16 other oil-state senators who co-sponsored the amendment intended to target the Alaskan refuge and "other areas currently off limits."
"How much longer can we ignore ANWR -- the most promising domestic reserves for energy security -- while we place at risk U.S. lives in the Persian Gulf to protect an oil source on which we and our allies depend?" Murkowski asked.
The Alaskan refuge contains an estimated 3.2 billion barrels of oil. Offshore areas of the Pacific might contain another 4.4 billion. If all that oil is actually there, those resources would increase proven U.S. reserves by more than 25 percent.
But environmental groups say those figures promise more than they could actually deliver. First, they say, the existence of reserves in such quantities is uncertain. And second, even if they exist, they would not produce all that oil at once. Over the 30-year life of an oil field, their daily output would add little to U.S. supplies and would not reverse the steady decline in domestic U.S. production.
"They may be 3 billion barrels in ANWR but it's not certain," said Christopher Flavin, energy analyst at Worldwatch Institute in Washington. "Over 30 years, that's something like 290,000 barrels a day." Current U.S. consumption is more than 17 million barrels a day.
"Looking at the oil that may or may not lie beneath ANWR is like a Band-Aid when we need reconstructive surgery on our overall national energy policy," said Jim Young, Alaska issues specialist for the Sierra Club. Rather than enacting Murkowski's amendment, he said, Congress should approve a bill sponsored by Sen. Richard H. Bryan (D-Nev.) that would require automobiles to travel 40 miles on a gallon of fuel by 2001.
"Enactment of that would be like finding an oil field under Detroit," he said.
According to the nonpartisan Alliance to Save Energy, a business and political group, Bryan's bill would result in savings of 2.8 million barrels of oil a day -- 10 times the amount that would flow from ANWR.