No need to drill for oil in precious lands

The United States has become the world’s leading producer of petroleum, beating even Saudi Arabia. That means we can be somewhat choosy about where we drill for oil.

Two key conflicts exist in that regard. One, of course, is protection of the environment, including natural treasures that, once devastated, can never be replaced.

Another is cultural, and it often involves Native Americans and lands they consider sacred.

One of those is the Chaco Canyon region of New Mexico.

Another is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

Much of the land in Western states is owned by the federal government and handled by the Bureau of Land Management, part of the Department of the Interior. For many years, the BLM recognized a 10-mile buffer zone around Chaco Canyon, refusing to allow private energy companies to drill wells there. Last year, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke halted a proposal to lease land in that area for drilling. He cited cultural concerns.

But now, the BLM is considering sale of leases on about 50 parcels of land in New Mexico and Oklahoma. One of the properties is near Chaco Culture National Historical Park. That has upset some Native American leaders.

The relatively flat, treeless landscape of some areas in the West is attractive to oil, gas and coal companies for obvious reasons. Cheaper drilling costs mean higher profits.

Thousands of miles north, the area that is now the Arctic Refuge was visited in 1928 by frequent Adirondack visitor Bob Marshall — one of the first three Adirondack 46ers. The Arctic land inspired one of his most quoted essays, “The Problem of the Wilderness” (1930), in which he said preserving places like this is “one hope of repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every niche on the whole earth.”

The roadless area in northeast Alaska has been federally protected since 1960. It is home to polar bears and caribou, on which Native people still rely for food and clothing.

In the late 1970s, amid the worst of the global energy crisis, oil companies wanted to drill there, but Congress said no and instead made the land a national wildlife refuge in 1980. The call to drill there has returned many times since, and now the BLM is fast-tracking it, pushing hard to start oil extraction by the end of this year.

There may come a time when we Americans are so desperate for oil that there is a compelling, logical need to drill wherever it may be found.

But that time is not now. Even during the 1970s energy crisis it wasn’t necessary. Instead, Americans exercised a little bit of self-discipline: insulating their homes and swapping gas-guzzlers for more energy-efficient cars.

BLM officials should remove the Chaco Canyon area lease from their list and drop plans to open the Arctic Refuge to oil drilling. These lands are precious, and the reason for exploiting them would be private profits rather than public necessity — greed, not need.

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