As her plane touched down at Fairbanks Airport in Alaska, Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R.-Minn.) promptly called me at home. The time was 10:30 PM, Sunday, and the freshman lawmaker had just spent the day with nine Republican colleagues actually touring the controversial, much-debated site of the Arctic Natural Wildlife Reserve (ANWR) and asking questions of Alaskan natives and seismic experts. For all the rancor and disagreements on whether to drill on the site, Bachmann offered conclusions that were cut and dried.
“We could begin drilling in ANWR and the local Alaskan people, the Alaskan natives want the drilling to occur,” she told me, “We could begin drilling in ANWR,, we could begin pumping, and we would have access to over ten billion barrels of oil.”
Swell. We’ve heard that before. But the Minnesota Republican then made a point that is rarely made: that the pipelines now “are only about 50% full, and we could be able to increase that production,” but—and this is a big “but”—“there is a very narrow window of opportunity.”
“With the current permitting process that is in place,” Bachmann explained, “it could take between six to nine years to get ANWR actually pumping. Here’s other kicker–if we don’t get more oil fields open for exploration and actually pumping up in Prudhoe Bay, we only have about 10 years for the oil yet to put online, but this easily trans-Alaskan pipelines is in a very difficult place, because if they send less than 300,000 barrels a day down that pipeline, the pipeline won’t work. The pipeline initially sent 2.1 million barrels a day down through the pipeline when the field first opened. We’re now pumping maybe 700,000 barrels a day and that’s because the field is diminishing. Congress has not allowed for an expansion of oil exploration and drilling. We have to expand our oil drilling up there or we could lose the valuable gift of this pipeline, and there’s no reason not to use this. It’s in place, it’s ready to go.”
So what to do? Barham pointed out that “all we have to do is build the 74 additional miles of pipeline to get to ANWR to begin the pumping of which we believe is over 10 million barrels, and we’re in business. The American people would see a 50 percent increase in American energy from what we have now. There’s absolutely no reason not to drill in ANWR and begin doing so immediately. The problem, really, is the permitting process has so many artificial delays in it and also there are about 11 different points in that permitting process where lawsuits can be filed to stop production. One thing that I did about a week or so ago was introduce a bill that would fast track the permitting process and now after visiting ANWR I want to introduce another bill that would streamline the litigation process so that we don’t have useless lawsuits that unnecessarily slow down the process of bringing oil online.”
As to the argument from ANWR foes that it would take ten years for oil to begin pumping, Bachman shot back: “The experts didn’t say 10 years — six to nine years is the current burdensome regulation artificially-delayed timeline permitting and the wild card of the litigation. We were told about lawsuits — five that are filed right now — and they can take two years to get a decision. I’m a former federal tax litigation attorney. One thing Congress has authority over is the court system. We can create courts, and we can get rid of courts if we want to."
She continued, "One idea that I had is whether or not it would really be a good idea to create a special court system that would deal solely with oil and gas issues on the permitting process and perhaps have a judges that are steeped in expertise on this area of the law and then give these judges perhaps deadlines, maybe 60 to render legislation or 90 days — I’m just pulling some arbitrary numbers out of the air — because today is the ninth circuit quarter appeals — you’re familiar with the ninth circuit — they may be two years before they’ll render a decision but just think, they’ll have a company that will maybe be over several billion dollars toward the right to lease that land, and they are able to advance in leasing the land because they are mired down and fighting lawsuits for potentially two or more years at a time.”
Bachman also demolished the case that the environment and “pristine” nature would be endangered by drilling in ANWR. Noting that the entire area is about 19 million acres, she quickly added that “…if you talk to the native people, the Alaskan natives, if you will, that are up there, they will tell you there are two ANWRs. There’s one ANWR that is primarily protected for wildlife. It contains part of the Brooks Mountain range and just beautiful landscape. It’s what you’ll see if you turn on Fox or CNN when they show you the aerial photo. The portion of ANWR that would be used for drilling is the size of a postage stamp on a football field — it’s a very small area. It’s in a coastal plain, and it is just directly to the east of Prudhoe Bay where we have very successfully been producing oil for America’s energy needs. And again, Prudhoe Bay has been the largest oil discovery that the United States has, and it is currently still today the largest oil discovery that America has, although the field is not producing as much as it did before. That means we need to find new sources of energy and through the seismic activity that scientists have done up there, they are quite certain that we have a very large oil reserve, the average estimate is 10 billion barrels of oil, just within 74 miles of the current pipeline.”
“And that’s one thing I’d like to mention,” said Bachmann, “This coastal plain area could not be more perfectly suited for drilling. We have a pipeline that is over 800 miles long that goes from Prudhoe Bay down to … and that alone has to be one of the wonders of the world — the fact that a pipeline of this magnitude could be built and it’s been running continuously for 31 years, so it’s very low effort not traversing over mountains, but just going over regular tundra, and we would only need to build a 74 mile spur of pipeline.”
Bachman took after Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her claims that “there are 60 million acres and that oil companies are sitting on their leases. There is not one lease — not one that Nancy Pelosi can point to where she could legitimately say that an oil company is sitting on a lease and not using it. The oil company has every incentive to use their lease and try and actually do the exploration and begin the drilling process so that they sell the product. There is not one lease that isn’t being utilized. There is about a 10-year window that Congress created to essentially slow the process down of permitting and to allow for all of the extraneous litigation that slows the process down, so we actually could be up and pumping within about three years rather than 10 years, and so when Al Gore makes those comments, he should really be pointing his finger at the United States Congress because Congress is the problem for delaying this process. If Congress got out of the way, these companies could easily get this oil online within three years. And that’s in a very environmentally-sensitive way.”
The congresswoman concluded by telling me how she and her colleagues (led by House GOP Leader John Boehner) had dined with Alaska Gov. Sarah Pallin.
“She wanted to know what is going to happen in Congress,” Bachmann recalled, “She wanted to know what the plan was, and we told her that it’s been very clear and she couldn’t believe that the Democrat-controlled Congress literally will not be calling a vote on drilling in ANWR before we leave on August recess. She was aghast that we would not have that vote. If the governor of Alaska was astounded at Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reed’s non-energy plans for the year 2008, I think the American people would be even more astounded.
Bachmann concluded by telling me she intended to contact John McCain and “absolutely urge” him to follow in her footsteps and go to Alaska.
“There’s only about one Congressional delegation a year that goes up to ANWR,” she said, “and I believe that if Sen. McCain would step foot on ANWR or even did a fly-over of ANWR and speak directly with the local native community that’s up there, I believe that he would be convinced as we were that this is one very important piece that we can very quickly get online so that we can not only bring down the prices of energy for the American people but also so we can maximize the use of this incredible feat of American ingenuity.”