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The Real Threat to Alaska By: David Keene
The Hill | Friday, March 03, 2006

The so-called environmental movement has proved itself hostile to increased energy use or production, regardless of its source.

Nuclear energy is deemed too dangerous, coal too dirty. Oil rigs are ugly and offend the sensibilities of both sun bathers in Florida and caribou in Alaska, which means we have to import the stuff from places with which we’d rather not do business and then refine it in unsightly and smelly refineries.

Instead, they tell us, we should scale back, give up our SUVs, abandon the suburbs and accept restrictions on our lifestyle, for it is our very freedom to do what we will and enjoy our lives that is the crux of the problem.

To accomplish this, the do-gooders who run the movement have built themselves a multibillion-dollar empire of advocacy groups that rely on fear to raise money. Michael Crichton’s fictionalized account of the possible consequences of this frenzied need to raise money by scaring the snot out of their contributors wasn’t far from the mark.

This drives them to symbolic warfare in which facts often have little to do with the vituperativeness with which they approach their enemies. The ongoing and thus far successful effort to prevent oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, or ANWR, is a recent example.

They invested millions in the ANWR campaign to brand it as the environmental fight of the decade, running ads claiming that the proposed drilling would destroy the beauty of Alaska and including beautifully framed photographs of the lush Alaska of our imagination. The only problem is that the area in which drilling is proposed is nothing like the Alaska of their ads and the technology that would be employed there has in the past proved neither dangerous nor environmentally risky.

Meanwhile, they have largely ignored what could be a real threat to the Alaska they claim to be so dedicated to saving. The Alaska of our dreams may not be found on the mud flats that hide the oil we so desperately need, but it can be found in the Bristol Bay watershed, where streams flow into Lake Iliama and provide the habitat in which some 40 percent of the state’s Pacific salmon breed, where the world’s largest moose and brown bears are to be found alongside streams harboring the largest and scrappiest trout on the continent.

When advertisers, tourist agencies and outdoor lovers picture Alaska, this is where they send their camera crews. This is the Alaska that may today be threatened but that few environmental activists are much interested in. In fact, thus far the only people who seem concerned are the sportsmen who flock to the area and the natives who live there.

The threat is real. A Canadian company has managed to lay claim to lands at the top of the watershed that contain billions of dollars worth of gold and other minerals. The problem is that it is found there in such low concentrations that getting it out will require digging an open-pit mine of gargantuan proportions and treating the “ore” thus exposed with cyanide. The pit the company says it will dig to extract the gold will be 2 miles long and some 1,600 feet deep, making it one of the largest open-pit mines on the continent.

Waste from the pit would cover an estimated 20 square miles of the Alaska in those pictures. Now, Alaska is admittedly a big place and there are a lot of places up there where all this digging, leeching and piling up of waste might not make that much difference, but here if anything goes wrong the consequences could prove disastrous.

Not to worry, however, if you are an interested investor. The mine’s owners assured shareholders in their most recent annual report that, as a Canadian corporation, they can escape legal liability for whatever environmental damage might result from activities in Alaska.

Most mine opponents are people who live and work in the area. Most of them were supporters of ANWR drilling, which, as one put it to me, would use proven safe technology in a non-sensitive area to produce something we really need, as compared to the proposed mine, which would use technology that has proven risky in the past to exploit a truly sensitive area for something we don’t really need.

The environmental lobby hasn’t gotten involved because it senses there is more money to be raised attacking our addiction to oil and SUVs and the people who run the oil companies than by taking on an obscure Canadian mining operation that may actually be putting the Alaska of our dreams at risk.

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David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental affairs firm.

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