''THERE'S BEEN an oil spill in Alaska; it looks like a big one.'' That was John Sununu, the White House chief of staff during the adminstration of George Bush Sr., speaking to the EPA administrator, Bill Reilly, after the spill of the Exxon Valdez. Twelve years later, more than half the affected species have not recovered.
The Alaska National Wildlife Refuge is the biological heart of one of the last great wilderness areas in North America, considered by many the American Serengeti.
Despite the stalwart opposition of most Democrats and moderate Republicans, despite the overwhelming objections of the American people, the House of Representatives recently passed an energy bill that would open these ecologically valuable and sensitive lands to oil drilling. The bill goes to the Senate this fall.
Yet again, on an environmental issue of grave concern to the American people, the more conservative elements in the Republican Party, my party, choose to turn from its own proud conservation heritage and from its own rank and file. Instead, it bows to myopic partisan pressures.
The American people rightfully expect protecting our environment to be a bipartisan undertaking. Unfortunately, they no longer even associate the Republican Party with conservation. They have forgotten, just as our party's leadership has forgotten, that it was President Eisenhower who gave us the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge; President Nixon who gave us the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency; and Teddy Roosevelt who gave us the first national wildlife refuges, national monuments, and millions of acres of public land.
Today, another Republican, John Sununu, the New Hampshire congressman, has given us a disingenuous amendment to the House energy bill. The amendment is an attempt to disguise as conservative a willful and aggressive intrusion on the pristine wilderness of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. It claims to limit the drilling to 2,000 acres, but this includes only the land where drilling pads and supports actually touch the ground. This is like measuring the New Jersey Turnpike by the acreage occupied by its tollbooths, in which case the turnpike would be situated on 2.77 square miles.
We are facing a potential energy crisis, but it has nothing to do with lack of supply. There is no shortage of fossil fuels in the world pantry. The problem is that America contains only 4 percent of the world's oil reserves. The administration claims that draining our small oil stocks will feed America's undisciplined appetite for energy and give us greater independence from foreign powers. Only Christ could perform the miracle of the loaves and the fishes.
Earlier this year I gave a speech to Asian business leaders on globalization and the financial markets. To the surprise of some of my colleagues, I included a section on the global environment. To their amazement, all the follow-up questions were on the environment. Those Asian business leaders are strategizing for the future, and they get the big picture.
While the economic forces unleashed by globalization are responsible for breaching the Berlin Wall, while those forces break through trade barriers and challenge national and ideological borders, the one wall with which we are heading for a collision is the carrying capacity of the global environment and the world's depleted stock of renewable resources.
Efficiency and technological innovation will continue to fuel the global economy, but those values must be tempered by decency. Restraint and discipline are no longer optional.
The American people also get the picture. When the administration talks about ''balancing'' environmental and energy needs, the American people recognize the problem: Those needs are not currently in balance. Our environmental accounts are in the red; we are running on credit, and we are running out of it.
As James Gustave Speth of Yale University's School of Forestry states, ''We are entering the endgame in our relationship with the natural world. Whatever slack nature previously cut us is gone.''
We Americans are heading into a carbon-constrained, ecologically fragile future for which we are ill prepared. Under the present leadership we are dragging our feet, willing to sacrifice vital natural resources instead of making real investments in current efficiency and future energy technologies. This is hardly a conservative agenda.
Moderate Republicans, and I am one, are distressed that an administration that strenuously claims to be conservative is instead intent on maintaining undisciplined and wasteful consumption. This is unsustainable public policy, and I doubt that it will go far in achieving victory in the midterm elections. Bad public policy and bad politics are a lethal combination.
Our country is about more than the success of our economic enterprise, and it is that more that keeps us strong: our moral vigor, determination, and grit, our openness and generosity. The vastness of these lands has harbored the vastness of the American spirit, and our people will not part with either easily. And they shouldn't.
The Alaska National Wildlife Refuge is this nation's Rubicon; it is the place where we will learn if we possess the restraint, reason, and decency to respect the values preserved there. It is the place where we will learn whether our nation will rise honorably to the challenges of this new century or capitulate to them.
Theodore Roosevelt IV is a member of Republicans for Environmental Protection and the great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company