Bachmann oil drilling plan draws skepticism

Arctic refuge
This undated photo shows the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service/Getty Images

Michele Bachmann returned from a weekend tour of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge even more committed to the idea of drilling for oil there.

She shared her experience first with the National Review, writing that ANWR is a treasure trove of energy. Bachmann repeated the message during an appearance on Fox News. During the brief television interview, Bachmann described ANWR as a perfect place for oil drilling.

Rep. Michele Bachmann
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., explains the need for more oil drilling and production during a July 7 news confrence.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

"It's perfectly situated because it's adjacent to the current Trans-Alaska pipeline," she said. "This is our energy lifeline for the United States. It's over 800 miles of pipeline. This is only 74 miles away. It would be relatively simple to build a spur line."

Bachmann is backing a GOP proposal that would open up oil drilling in Alaska, the nation's coastal waters and other closed areas.

She also favors increasing oil refining capacity, expanding natural gas exploration, building more nuclear power plants and extending tax credits for alternative fuels.

Bachmann has even claimed the overall strategy to boost energy production could bring back $2 a gallon gas.

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But much of the first-term Republican's attention is on ANWR. During a conference call with reporters, Bachmann said oil drilling could be done in a small area with minimal environmental impact.

"This has not been repelling wildlife. This has been a situation where wildlife actually coexists very well, and in fact in some ways, you may say is enhanced," Bachmann said. "We were told how dramatically the caribou herd has even increased since inputting the pipeline 31 years ago."

Some environmental groups take issue with Bachmann's claims, as well as the Republican drilling proposal.

"The Arctic Refuge is a national wildlife refuge. It's not an oil field."

Melinda Pierce of the Sierra Club said Bachmann is oversimplifying the work needed to connect ANWR oil with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. She said it would take a significant engineering project to complete. Pierce said Bachmann is also wrong about the environmental impact of drilling.

"The development of these oil fields is not isolated to a single drilling pad or a single facility," she said. "When they go in to develop a field it's miles and miles of pipeline, gravel bars, gravel pits, waste pits, drilling heads. It is a sprawling industrial complex. The Arctic Refuge is a national wildlife refuge. It's not an oil field. And this would be a major industrial facility sited in the middle of the refuge."

ANWR drilling is a divisive issue, even among Republicans. Presidential candidate John McCain favors a hands-off approach there. So does Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman. Coleman said he supports an increase in domestic oil exploration, but not everywhere. He said ANWR drilling is unrealistic.

"I recognize that whether I reconsider my position or not, I just don't see ANWR being opened up," Coleman said. "The debate has gone on too long. The divisions are too wide. The reality is, and this is the way I always try to operate, where can we find common ground?"

Environmentalists and other critics also question Bachmann's claim that ANWR drilling could soon reduce pump prices.

They cite a recent analysis from the U.S. Energy Information Administration that concluded oil drilling there would take more than a decade to develop.

The agency also estimates the added supply would lower the price of a barrel of oil by no better than $1.44, which means the reduction of the price of a gallon of gasoline would be far less.

Bachmann is running for re-election to a second term. Her DFL opponent, Elwyn Tinklenberg, said he also supports more domestic oil exploration as part of a broader strategy that also lowers oil consumption. But Tinklenberg said Bachmann's pledge of $2 a gallon gas isn't realistic.