Environmentalists Strike Back

With This Ring - Early Show segment April 16, 2007
Opponents of the plan to drill for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have a message for Interior Secretary Gale Norton: There are better and cheaper ways to address the nation's huge appetite for oil.

Norton, one of President Bush's most controversial Cabinet nominees, was confirmed by the Senate Tuesday in a 74-24 vote.

Her opponents fear she'll pay more attention to property rights and business issues than the environment. Supporters say she'll take a common-sense approach to environmental issues.

At a news conference Wednesday, Natural Resources Defense Council policy analyst Charles Clusen argued that the Bush administration plan to open the 1.5-million-acre Alaskan coastal plain to oil exploration is actually inefficient, even when environmental concerns are not added into the equation.

"The U.S. Geological Survey's best estimate is that there is a mere six months' supply (of the amount the nation currently uses) under the coastal plane and it would take ten years of work to get that oil to market," says Clusen. "The proposal makes no sense from an environmental, economic, or energy perspective."

The NRDC suggests that the government turn instead to some green measures it says would be a lot more profitable, for example, better tires and passenger vehicles with improved fuel economy.

How much of a difference would that really make, compared to going out and drilling for oil?

Quite a lot, says Ronald Hwang, the NRDC's transportation and energy expert.

"The opportunities for oil savings far outweigh the oil recovery opportunities from the Arctic refuge," says Hwang, who points to U.S.G.S. figures estimating that 3.2 billion barrels of oil would be economically recoverable from the refuge during the 50 years that an oilfield typically lasts.

He compares that to the 5.4 billion barrels he says could be saved over the same time period, if the federal government were to require replacement tires on passenger vehicles to deliver the same fuel economy as do the tires that come on the vehicles as original equipment.

Hwang says original equipment tires have better rolling resistance - that is, resistance to the road - than replacement tires, which makes the vehicles they carry about 4 percent more fuel efficient.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration actually did propose a rolling resistance requirement back in 1994, but shelved the idea after numerous tire makers objected.

Currently, rolling resistance isn't even one of the specs that's on the label ready to be compared.

But that doesn't mean you can't do yourself, and the environment, a favor, says Hwang.

"You can buy original equipment tires. Go to your dealer and ask for the same tire that comes with the vehicle," advises Hwang.

He admits you'll probably pay a premium for the tires, which manufacturers like because they bring down the overall fuel economy of their fleet, to meet federal requireents.

But Hwang says the real cost of making more fuel-efficient tires is only about $5 a tire.

Environmentalists say
raising tire standards would
save more oil than can be
obtained from drilling in
the Alaskan wildlife refuge.

Another set of numbers the NRDC loves to point to is the amount of oil that could be saved - as opposed to drilled, in Alaska - if the fuel economy of passenger vehicles in the U.S. were raised by 60 percent.

"We estimate that you could easily save 50 billion barrels of oil over the 50-year life of the oilfield," explains Hwang, who says it could be done today with traditional "off-the-shelf technology."

He adds that hybrid cars fueled by gasoline and electricity, now being sold by Toyota and Honda, and in development by Ford, General Motors and Daimler-Chrysler, can make fuel economy an even easier target to hit.

Unlike electric cars of the past, these models don't have to be charged up; they charge themselves as you drive around town and on the highway.

Hwang notes that average fuel economy for all new cars sold in the U.S., including SUVs and light trucks, is 24 miles per gallon, but the hybrids now on the market are checking in at 55 to 70 miles per gallon.

Proposals aren't the only weapons in the NRDC's arsenal. This week, the group unveiled its new "Biogems" Web site, focused on natural treasures it considers threatened by logging, mining, oil drilling or other commercial uses.

A kind of Internet crisis center, Biogems.org maintains a hit list of environmental problems, providing information and links for those who wish to get involved.

Interior Secretary Norton could wind up getting a lot of Biogems-generated e-mail.

Or maybe not.

Clusen, an Arctic specialist, looks back to 1969, when many conservationists expressed concern about the nomination of Walter Hickel as interior secretary.

"He turned out to be much better than we expected, because of the hard questions that got asked," says Clusen. "There's always a hope that she (Norton) will be better than we hoped."

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