As summer approaches and gas prices hit new highs, many are beginning to take a fresh look at the issue of energy.  To be sure, this subject has always aroused contentious debate. It seems trying to get a consensus on which direction to take our nation remains as illusive as a Chicago Cubs World Series victory. But with some analysts projecting the national gas price average could zoom to near $3 per gallon by July 4th, the time to end the squabbling couldn’t be more pressing.

At the heart of our energy troubles is America’s dependence on imported oil.  Indeed, nearly 60 percent of our oil consumed comes from foreign sources — of which nearly 25 percent comes from the highly volatile region of the Middle East.  Since oil buoys a whopping 40 percent of our nation’s energy needs, getting a fix on both increasing production and decreasing demand seems, on the surface anyway, to be at least part of the solution.

New technologies no doubt can help.  Horizontal drilling techniques, for instance, have been demonstrated to both meet the demands of increasing production while limiting the impact on the environment.  Although more expensive to build than their conventional counterparts, wells that employ horizontal drilling technology, such as one being constructed at Sakhalin Island in the Sea of Okhotsk in the Russian Far East, will soon be able to drill a full 6.5 miles horizontally and do so without disturbing marine life.  At older sites such as in the Gulf of Mexico, platforms might also find their useful life extended. Such breakthroughs offer great promise in providing our nation with more domestic production.

Obviously, however, merely creating new technologies will do us little good if we have no place to employ them.  That it is why it is crucial we explore and develop new areas where oil can be extracted.  One such spot is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska.  

Many environmentalists, to be sure, are fiercely opposed to opening up the refuge to drilling.  Their opposition is understandable, as the region boasts an assortment of wildlife ranging from porcupine caribou and arctic foxes to polar bears and golden plovers.  Incidences such as the Valdez oil spill in the past also demonstrate the potential threat such operations can impose on the natural world.

Weighing against these concerns are more encouraging facts.  To begin with, oil drilling in nearby Prudhoe Bay and the Alpine oil fields has given us reason to believe any disturbance caused by mankind’s intrusion will not adversely affect local species.  Porcupine Caribou, for instance, have seen their numbers greatly increase from 6,000 head in 1978 to over 27,000 today.  A study conducted over a decade ago by the U.S. Geological Survey also found that “many denned polar bears exposed to human activities are likely not to be affected in ways that alter their productivity.”  And when one factors in that the drilling would occur in the winter months when virtually no wildlife is present, and the airstrips, roads and platforms would be constructed of ice that melts away and vanishes in the spring, many of the principle environmental objections are mitigated.

ANWR could, on the other hand, provide a significant amount of oil to help the U.S. transition to other forms of domestic energy.   The refuge has the potential to provide some 16 billion barrels of oil, which amounts to some 30 years worth of imports from Saudi Arabia.  Also, as noted by CFACT senior policy analyst Paul Driessen, turned into gasoline, ANWR would power California’s vehicle fleet for 50 years.  While not able to fully remove us from a dependence on foreign oil, it certainly is nothing to scoff at!

To be sure, simply producing more energy is not the only action needed to be taken.  Also important is creating new ways to more efficiently use what we have.  Along this line, the free market seems to be stepping in and doing its part to help out.  Sales of hybrid vehicles, for example, and as noted in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “are selling as fast as they’re being produced.”  The most popular hybrid, the Toyota Prius, accounted for 53,000 sales last year, and that’s expected to go up dramatically with surging gas prices.  Some states are also doing their bit to push the transition along, like Virginia which is experimenting with allowing hybrids to go on HOV lanes during rush hours.  Others like California have taken to taxing gasoline more heavily – but this somewhat negative approach, coupled with Californians penchant for trendiness, has worked to spur 42 percent of all hybrid sales.  A more robust market for alternative fuel vehicles will no doubt have an impact on conserving oil use, and to some degree the environmental community deserves credit for educating Americans about being more energy conscious in their purchasing choices.

Ultimately, our nation cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, limit its dependence on foreign oil overnight.  Such a process takes time.  But with the advent of new technologies and a vibrant economy that reacts to such shortages through the power of the free market, new opportunities will soon emerge that will bring us, and much of the world, down a more progressive path that balances both the immediate needs of people, and the ever wondrous demands of nature.