Froma Harrop: Oil Has a Price. Wildlife? Priceless
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 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.