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Originally published Thursday, April 28, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnists

Pro-drilling politicians are living in the past

Perched on the top of the world, along Alaska's northern coastline, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has become more than just a wild...

Special to The Times

Perched on the top of the world, along Alaska's northern coastline, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has become more than just a wild, unspoiled sanctuary for polar bears, caribou and millions of migratory birds. It has become a test of imagination.

Those who are pushing for oil drilling in the Arctic refuge don't seem to understand that securing America's energy future demands new thinking and a new attitude — virtues that seem to be in short supply in Washington, D.C., these days.

The energy legislation passed by the House of Representatives last week (and the parallel scheme to sneak Arctic drilling through in the federal budget) is a case in point. Ultimately, an energy policy that relies on billions of dollars in subsidies to big oil and gas companies and drilling wildlife sanctuaries for less oil than the U.S. consumes in a single year is worse than no plan at all. By extending our reliance on fossil fuels at the expense of sustainable, clean, innovative energy solutions, pro-drilling politicians are missing the boat.

Asked the best way to solve our energy challenges, voters consistently and overwhelmingly choose clean, renewable energy and greater conservation over increased drilling in places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. To us, that suggests that the political figures who are pushing so hard for Arctic drilling are fundamentally misreading what the people are looking for.

And it also suggests that with a little imagination and real leadership, our political leaders could set this country on a new course to a cleaner, more-sustainable energy future, while reaping political rewards in the bargain.

Our own Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray have been leaders in keeping the oil rigs out of the Arctic refuge. But even as they worked to protect the refuge, they have consistently worked to focus the energy debate on the smarter solution of renewable energy resources.

Any economic gains our state might reap from drilling the Arctic are speculative at best, and would take a decade or more to come in — if they ever do. On the other hand, clean energy is having a positive impact on our state — right now. Today, the Northwest boasts a $1.4 billion clean-energy industry that is on track to grow to $2.5 billion over the next several years. This would create more than 12,000 new jobs in our region, primarily in rural communities.

Investments in clean energy will not only grow our local economy and reinvigorate the region's technology sector, but will also put us at the leading edge of an international wave of innovation.

A study sponsored by a group of Northwest utilities and interest groups estimated that the international market for clean-energy technologies, including renewable energy resources such as wind or solar power, will grow to $180 billion a year over the next 20 years. It is in our economic interest to set policy that will ensure the United States and Washington state capture a major portion of this market. We could attain 3.5 percent of the worldwide market for clean-energy technologies — including not just generation, but also transmission technologies needed to bring power to market more efficiently — and create as many as 35,000 new jobs in the Northwest.

By contrast, experts agree that drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would take a decade to add even a drop of oil to the market, and another decade or more to reach peak production — at a whopping 2 to 3 percent of our annual consumption. After that, it would gradually and inexorably dwindle back to nothing, leaving us still dependent on imported oil, with no more jobs than when we started, and with an industrial wasteland where we used to have a wildlife refuge.

Unlike fossil fuels, renewable energy sources are sustainable. They will never run out. Our actions today to use renewable energy technologies will not only benefit us now, but will benefit many generations to come.

Today, we are faced with a choice: We can continue down the path of the past or we can look to solutions that will give us a stronger and healthier future — a 21st-century energy policy that creates jobs, and encourages the health and vitality of our communities.

Michelle Ackermann is regional director of The Wilderness Society. Sara Patton is executive director of the NW Energy Coalition.

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