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Mixing Oil and Birds

by Laura Huggins

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and, as has often been the case throughout its history, it has stirred up political conflicts over its use. There are the usual loud claims about what should be done with ANWR. Drilling proponents call for enhanced energy security, environmentalists appeal for ecological integrity, and preservationists have even suggested that it be designated as a national monument. The result is zero-sum political land management–conflict instead of compromise.

One group that is lobbying to prohibit energy development in ANWR is the Audubon Society. Audubon’s president David Yarnold released a statement today urging lawmakers “to keep the Refuge safe from oil and gas drilling,” which imperils wildlife and contributes to the “significant ecological disruption” already brought on by climate change.

But as Terry Anderson and I write in Greener Than Thou, the Audubon Society has allowed oil companies to operate in a few of their privately owned wildlife sanctuaries. The Paul J. Rainey Preserve, for instance, allowed an oil company to operate thirteen natural gas wells for nearly fifty years. The company had to comply with tough stipulations, including no pumping during the nesting season and special equipment that made less noise. As one Audubon manager said, “when the cranes punched in, the hard hats have to punch out.” In exchange, Audubon earned more than $25 million, with which it was able to purchase additional lands.

The Bernard Baker Sanctuary in southern Michigan serves as another example. Audubon operates a well outside the sanctuary and uses a slant drilling technique to drill into the sanctuary’s reserves. According to the resident manager, the agreement was so successful that the sanctuary is negotiating with another oil company to build a rig on the other side of the sanctuary.

Why does the Audubon Society behave so differently in the political arena than they do on their private land? The answer is ownership of the resource. With public ownership, there is no incentive to consider the tradeoffs associated with alternative or even complementary uses of ANWR. Environmental groups have no reason to take into account the benefits of drilling, and energy proponents have no drive to consider the environmental costs. In the public domain, conflict instead of cooperation is the norm as both sides stick to oversimplified exaggerations.

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