Oil has a price but wildlife refuges are price­less

The Columbus Dispatch - - Opinion/forum - FROMA HAR­ROP Froma Har­rop writes for Cre­ators Syn­di­cate. fhar­rop@gmail.com

The Bi­ble tells how Esau sold his birthright for a ‘’mess of pot­tage.’’ It is a les­son on the fool­ish­ness of choos­ing im­me­di­ate grat­i­fi­ca­tion over some­thing of far more value but in the fu­ture. Esau, in sum, traded his right to be rec­og­nized as the first­born son — with all the ad­van­tages his so­ci­ety at­tached to that sta­tus — for a bowl of lentil stew.

A mess of pot­tage is be­ing cooked up again in the form of re­newed ef­forts to open the Arc­tic Na­tional Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. The hunger tem­po­rar­ily sated would be for $1 bil­lion — the pro­ceeds from sell­ing drilling rights — to help pay for a buf­fet of tax cuts over 10 years.

Bear in mind two things. One is that $1 bil­lion would be a tiny drop in the ocean of $1.5 tril­lion in deficits the tax cuts would set off. And two, it’s about seven times what some oil-in­dus­try ex­perts

The go-to in­cen­tive for sell­ing all kinds of Amer­i­can birthrights — let’s add health-care se­cu­rity to our wilder­ness crown jew­els — has been tax cuts.

say the sales would ac­tu­ally bring in.

As the name im­plies, wildlife refuges are ar­eas set aside for na­tive mam­mals, birds and fish to mul­ti­ply and flour­ish. Pres­i­dent Theodore Roo­sevelt es­tab­lished the first wildlife refuge in 1903, Florida’s Pel­i­can Is­land.

Back in the ‘’drill, baby, drill’’ days of a decade ago, many con­ser­va­tives ar­gued that ex­ploit­ing the oil and gas re­serves in the Arc­tic refuge would help free Amer­ica from de­pen­dence on for­eign oil. And it would bring down the price of gaso­line at the pump.

Were the U.S. fac­ing a na­tional emer­gency (which we weren’t back then, ei­ther), we’d be hav­ing a dif­fer­ent con­ver­sa­tion. Not only is Amer­ica now far less de­pen­dent on en­ergy im­ports but also it’s be­come an ex­porter. And note that there’s cur­rently very lit­tle rend­ing of gar­ments over the price of gas.

Thanks to the shale-oil drilling boom, the U.S. is the world’s largest pro­ducer of oil and gas. Do­mes­tic de­mand, mean­while, has flat­tened as Amer­i­cans shift to more-ef­fi­cient ve­hi­cles. Con­sider also that the revo­lu­tion in elec­tric ve­hi­cles has barely be­gun.

Fall­ing en­ergy prices have de­stroyed about 100,000 oil jobs in Texas since 2014. The in­dus­try’s one bright light has been a surge in ex­ports be­ing sent out of ports in Texas and Louisiana. Des­ti­na­tions in­clude South Korea, In­dia and, of course, China. Some of the crude from West Texas shale fields is end­ing up in Euro­pean coun­tries seek­ing sup­plies out­side po­lit­i­cally un­sta­ble parts of the Mideast and Africa.

So why all of a sud­den do we have to in­vade our pris­tine wildlife refuges in the name of en­ergy se­cu­rity? We do not. The go-to in­cen­tive for sell­ing all kinds of Amer­i­can birthrights — let’s add health-care se­cu­rity to our wilder­ness crown jew­els — has been tax cuts.

Those sali­vat­ing over the tax-cut stew should know that rav­aging the Arc­tic Na­tional Wildlife Refuge would not make it fis­cally re­spon­si­ble. As im­plied ear­lier, re­cent Arc­tic lease sales would point to a haul in the range of $145 mil­lion, nowhere near the $1 bil­lion pro­jected by the Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice.

It’s un­clear that drilling in the refuge would even make eco­nomic sense for the play­ers. An­a­lysts say the price of oil would have to top $70 a bar­rel to make drilling worth the com­pa­nies’ ef­forts. The U.S. bench­mark price re­cently stood at about $57. Some think the price will rise, but oth­ers see it fall­ing. This would be a risky bet.

One doesn’t know how to put a price on the con­tin­ued sur­vival of arc­tic foxes, musk oxen, cari­bou and po­lar bears. Some cost-ben­e­fit analy­ses of en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions present tough choices. Sac­ri­fic­ing Amer­ica’s nat­u­ral birthright to par­tially off­set a rich per­son’s tax cut would be a mess-of-pot­tage deal.

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