Drilling in Alaska: The Big Picture

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Thursday’s narrow Senate victory for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling is just the latest—and by no means the last—shot in Big Oil’s Arctic rush. For years, with all eyes focused on the Middle East and Central Asia, the oil industry kept alive its dormant plans to drill for oil and gas in the far north—not just in places like Alaska, but in the Canadian North, Siberia, and Scandinavia.

With continued melting of the Arctic ice, the same global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels appears to be opening new territory. Now the time for exploitation is at hand. Resistance by the native peoples of the North is to be swept away with lures of money and their growing power to strike oil deals that can effect the future course of energy production across the world.

The Canadian oil industry, long controlled by the big American companies, is usually considered as an adjunct to American business. Canadian demands for control have been dismissed with slighting references to the "blue-eyed Arabs" of the North.

American companies have staked out resources in the frozen Mackenzie delta area and around Ellsmere Island in the East. Bush has openly tied American energy markets to Canadian resources, a promise (or threat, depending on how you look at it) that is all the more likely to take place because of trade agreements meshing more tightly trade between the two countries. One of Big Oil’s dream projects is to build a pipeline to bring natural gas down through Canada into the U.S. middle west. As U.S. demand for gas to make clean electricity intensifies, that dream comes closer to reality.

Canada energy resources are tied in other ways to the U.S., notably through the great hydroelectric project in James Bay, which currently sends power down into the American East coast markets, including New York.

Sooner or later, the Canadians well know, clean water from its northern reservoirs will start being shipped into the lower 48 to provide drinking water that can replace the polluted aquifers of the Midwest and elsewhere. A pipeline carrying water could be laid next to the big planned gas pipeline.

Yesterday’s vote doesn’t mean the battle is over. The Senate version must be reconciled with a House bill that is far more expansive, opening coastal areas on the outer continental shelf to oil and gas drilling. It is sure to draw intense environmental antagonism, perhaps enough to tip the 51-48 balance back toward protecting the Arctic refuge.

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