Will Saddam's Oily Scheme Save Bush's ANWR Dream?

The president, never shy about playing the increasingly dog-eared national security card for political gain, is now using the growing crisis in the Middle East to justify his renewed call for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Adding fuel to the fire was Saddam Hussein's decision to cut off Iraqi oil exports for 30 days -- an economic scud that prompted the president to declare that the oil from ANWR "is needed more than ever."

"What more reason do we need," said the president, "than to diversify away from somebody like him?" Do you hate Saddam? Are you a real American? Well then you must agree with me on drilling in ANWR. Only in the Bush administration would energy "diversification" mean drilling in a wildlife refuge.

For his part, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said that he planned to respond to this crisis by meeting with officials of the American Automobile Association to talk about ways drivers might cut down on oil consumption -- things like not leaving the engine of your SUV idling while waiting to pick up your Big Mac in the drive-thru lane. I can already hear the new Happy Meal jingle: "Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, Saddam's threats don't upset us."

Helpful hints like that are all well and good, and are what the Energy Secretary should presumably be doing all the time and without fanfare. But if Secretary Abraham really wants to make America less vulnerable to the oily schemes of someone like Hussein, he should put his AAA plans in neutral and shift into high gear on something that we all know will work: raising mileage standards.

But instead of supporting last month's modest effort by John Kerry and John McCain to gradually increase fuel standards over the next 13 years, the White House joined in an unholy alliance with carmakers and the auto-worker unions, and helped kill the plan which would have saved about 2.5 billion barrels of oil a day, roughly the amount we currently import from the Middle East. Apparently, the first casualties of this new crisis were the administration's short-term memory and truth-telling skills.

So much for leading a charge to help us thumb our noses at Persian Gulf potentates. The White House would much rather pursue its now-clearly-bizarre obsession with drilling in ANWR -- a fixation which reached new heights this week with the Great Caribou Study Flip-Flop, a brazen example of media manipulation and political damage control.

After the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), a fact-finding agency within the Department of the Interior, released a report maintaining that drilling in ANWR poses a serious hazard to wildlife, a dismayed Interior Secretary Gale Norton prodded the scientists to reevaluate their conclusions and report back within 10 days.

The initial USGS study had been twelve years in the making. Norton-quality science is obviously much speedier -- the amended analysis was delivered in seven days, just in time for this week's Senate debate on the energy bill. And, in two pages as opposed to the original's 78, the revised report conveniently concluded that Bush's drilling proposal would have little or no impact on wildlife, particularly the thousands of Porcupine caribou that populate the Arctic refuge.

The head-spinning reversal left ANWR opponents apoplectic: "There have been numerous government reports telling the Bush administration what they didn't want to hear," fumed Sen. Joe Lieberman. "Now they've rushed through a study telling them what they do want to hear."

But the highly expedient revision was never about the actual effect of drilling on caribou calving rates and the foraging patterns of Musk oxen. It was all about headlines -- and on that front the White House got exactly what it wanted. "Limited Arctic Drilling Won't Harm Caribou, Scientists Say," trumpeted newspapers after the dubious do-over. Just what the Spin Doctor ordered.

If the president were truly sincere about freeing us from our dependence on foreign oil, he would forget about the very limited amounts of oil in ANWR -- which a new study by his own Department of Energy found would have a negligible effect on reducing oil imports -- and get serious about conservation and the promotion of alternative sources of energy.

But the president has not even delivered a single speech calling on all Americans to conserve as much energy as possible.

Indeed, all you really need to know about where the administration stands on the subject can be found in documents recently unearthed by a court order. It turns out the White House dipped into the Department of Energy's already meager funds for renewables and energy conservation -- budgets Team Bush is planning to slash by half -- to come up with over $135,000 for the printing of 10,000 copies of its industry-friendly energy plan.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer called Saddam's crude ploy "a reminder about the need for America to have an energy policy that is independent of such threats." But what we need even more urgently is an energy policy independent of the wishes, goals and manipulations of the oil industry, and their slick friends in the White House.

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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