November 18, 2004

ANWR Compromise Solution

I just came up with a great solution for ANWR. It’s not really biased toward any side except maybe libertarians, but here goes. We sell it. Auction it off, literally to the highest bidder.

Seriously. Oil companies want it, environmentalists want it, we sell it in closed bid auction, whoever offers the most gets 1002 Area (a section of ANWR, not the whole thing). They get the mineral rights as well. The Indian lands in 1002 would not be sold, since obviously they are already lived on and the Inupiat tribe that lives there can have their own damn land (I think we’ve taken enough of the Indians’ land). We wouldn't have to sell off the entire area, since the proposed development spot is only a little over three square miles.

Here’s the kicker: all profits will go into developing an alternative fuel source that will be used for passenger-size vehicles. I recommend a hydrogen fuel cell-based design, with solar- and wind-derived extraction. If successful, we’ll use it for military vehicles or federal civilian vehicles of one sort or another – hopefully some Army jeeps.

Obviously, this would have one immediate use in commercial civilian vehicles. It would take a serious changeover to make the technology viable, since our transportation infrastructure is based on getting fossil-derived fuels around the country. We'd have to make fuel cells available wherever they were introduced. Most likely they'd start in the cities and in states in the densely populated west coast and northeast (Seattle and Eugene residents would go ga-ga for it). Eventually it'd be available more widely. We'd also have to learn if it burns differently than the current engine, and take that information to firefighters. But otherwise, it's just as viable as any other solution - it's also clean, quite cheap, and pleasant-smelling. The only by-product of hydrogen-oxygen fuel cells, besides the energy involved, is water.

It's a very simple process. Electrolysis is introducing electricity to water and splitting H2O into H and O. Turning that into fuel, in essence, is simply the reverse: taking equal amounts of H and O and adding them together, to get electricity and water as a result. The water could either be dripped out safely (like A/C condensation is today), stored until disposed of, or drained by some other method. I realize there are concerns about the efficiency, power and durability of hydrogen fuel cell cars, but I'm confident technology can either solve these problems or point us to a better solution. Either way, the idea of auctioning off this one small part of ANWR is still good and we could use the money to research any number of alternative fuels.

Now, who might buy it? Well, it's closed bid, so there won't be tit-for-tat bid hikes. Whoever offers the most up-front in sealed bids wins, no second or third bids accepted. So who might compete? Plenty of people.

Entrepreneurs, land speculators and oil companies who think they can develop it themselves, contract out to get it developed, or sell it to someone else for a profit and let that guy develop it. For those concerned about wildlife, we can auction it with the proviso that certain safeguards be maintained for wildlife. I will defer to environmental experts and oil industry specialists as to how and what needs to be done in this area. My understanding is that other nearby development sites maintain animal populations equivalent to undeveloped areas adjacent to them. Hopefully that can be easily replicated in these circumstances and we don't need to really worry (of course, if we really cared that much for animals lost to development, then we'd be hypocritical to ignore the circumstances under which all our homes and businesses were constructed - by killing animals and knocking down wildlife).

Environmentalists and green-geeks might buy the area for the sake of ... ummm ... having it ... and stuff. No, to be serious, plenty of environmental groups exist with strong membership numbers and good fundraising bases. They could pool together and buy the land and with the support of Hollywood - millions and millions of dollars just sitting around - they could definitely scare up a lot of cash. Aging hippies, suburban busybodies, college activists, Hollywood do-gooders, there are plenty of people willing to speak for ANWR, maybe they'll put their money where their mouths are. Most substantially, Soros, Lewis, Sperling and the other Democratic billionaires are always around to contribute. After all, if there really are only 3 to 6 months worth of oil in 1002 Area, there's a definite profit limit there. A company is gambling that the costs of exploration, construction, extraction and transportation will be at least repaid by the oil found there. Environmentalists don't have to gamble because they don't look for monetary profit.

Eco-tourism entrepreneurs are a growing force in the world market and they have turned environmentalist-friendly refuges into budget-friendly endeavors through the use of libertarian-friendly private entities. If you can take middle class and wealthy people on vacations to see the bears, caribou, birds and whales in the area, without fundamentally disturbing them, then you can give a good service, turn a profit and still keep the area pretty well clear of development. This makes pretty much everybody happy. The eco-tourist crowd would probably have to see start-up money from Soros-style billionaires and Hollywood to compete with oil ventures, but I think it's reasonable.

Eco-tourism AND oil ventures could possibly go in together and use different parts of the same area for each purpose, deriving more of a total profit together than either could alone. This might be less plausible if only because eco-tourism types would get more money from their base if they were screwing over corporations. Still, a great way to keep potential commercial excesses against animal life in check is to make keeping those animals around a net profit for business. If there are enough enviro-lovers around who see the goal of wildlife preservation as more important than thumbing their noses at the Industrial Revolution, then this is viable.

The only proviso I'd add at this point is that no foreign governments could own it. Foreign corporations, foreign NGOs, sure, but not governments. Besides this move being unpopular, I like Alaska and I don't want to sell "Seward's Folly" to other countries.

So oil companies bid against each other, environmentalists and eco-tourists team up to get in the action, and the government takes secret bids from everyone. The winners get land and mineral rights to a very small part of ANWR to do with as they wish. The auction money goes into research and development for hydrogen fuel cells. If commercially successful hydrogen fuel cells would be cleaner, cheaper, renewable and derived without dependence on volatile foreign sources. Sounds like a pretty damn good plan to me.

Additionally, if a company wins the auction, it's very likely that they will re-sell the land to an environmentalist or eco-tourist concern whenever the oil becomes unprofitable to extract or find. They can then maintain - or worst-case scenario, regenerate - the area in question. It's unlikely that a company would hold onto that land if it held no commercial benefit.

It's not without drawbacks, and certainly extremists won't be thrilled by it, by I think it balances the concerns involved excellently. It also addresses the long term, which neither gung-ho oil-drilling nor environmentalist obstruction would do. Investing in fuel cell research is an eye to our future, when oil will be increasingly rare and foreign-derived. This plan finds a wonderful way to fund it without new taxes, deficit budgeting or spending cuts.

There's always going to be a contingent on the left that: a) doesn't like the idea of corporations even having a chance here, regardless of any limitations placed on their operations or the wonderful research their money will go to fund; b) resents the lack of a government agency to stick its nose in things or generally scurry about like it owns the place because it does, by law, own the place; c) is uncomfortable at the idea of paying money for what they could simply coerce through legislation, and won't want to set the precedent of competition that undermines their ability to pass laws.

Fortunately, this group should be overwhelmed by those in Congress who respect the goals achieved, especially the long-term emphasis research for alternative fuels and the budget-friendly manner in which the funds are raised. Sure, Feinstein and Schumer might raise a fuss, but I still think this is a good idea that appropriately balances the concerns of rising energy demands, environmental protections, lasting energy solutions and even libertarian budgeting.

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