ANWR LEASING A LANDMINE WAITING FOR BUSH

At first glance it seems incongruous: an outgoing President, grandstanding for posterity, first locking development out of one third of the national forest area of the US then declining to permanently declare an arctic wildlife refuge off limits.

On Jan. 5, US President Bill Clinton approved a Forest Service proposal to block road construction on 58.5 million acres in 39 states. On Jan. 10, he decided not to make the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska a national monument.

Clinton insisted that the forest lock-up wouldn't hurt energy supplies. Activity can continue on existing oil, gas, and mineral leases and after leases expire, he said, if they are reissued or renewed immediately.

It's an empty promise. A longstanding problem for federal leaseholders is a gauntlet of permitting difficulties and stipulations that limit activity on current leases. The new inability to expand leaseholdings will hurt play development and further discourage operators from pressing old fights on those issues.

To have locked away ANWR, in particular the promising Coastal Plain, behind the monument pretense would have been vintage Clinton. Environmentalists, for many of whom ANWR represents a drop-dead cause, would have loved it. And Clinton would have loved it that they loved him so much.

So why didn't he do it?

As the decision on national forests showed, it wasn't because he suddenly came to his senses on matters affecting US energy supply.

White House spokesman Jake Siewert revealed the motive.

The Alaskan National Lands Act, he explained, already requires congressional approval of ANWR leasing. Such congressional protection, he said, "is higher than that conferred to monuments."

Exactly where in law this hierarchy of protections resides is anyone's guess. And to an administration hitherto oblivious to constitutional balances of jurisdiction, it is irrelevant anyway.

Clinton is using ANWR as a political landmine for his successor.

President-elect George W. Bush made support for oil and gas leasing on the ANWR Coastal Plain an element of his campaign's energy platform. It's the proper position, of course.

And now Clinton, the cunning rascal, has dared him to act on it.

Bush won't. Nor should he.

The choice to open ANWR for oil and gas leasing, as Clinton has so deftly made clear, belongs to Congress. If Bush wants leasing, he'll have to get it from Congress.

And he can't do it. Congress is bitterly and closely divided. Few lawmakers outside of the Alaskan delegation want ANWR leasing enough to endure the nasty political fight that the needed legislation would arouse. Few lawmakers want to alienate environmentalists.

Bush surely sees that. Until there's a surge of public pressure on behalf of ANWR leasing, the odds are strongly against him on this issue at this time.

Leasing the ANWR Coastal Plain would make good energy and economic sense. But forcing the issue upon Congress now would be disastrous for Bush and his party.

And that's why Clinton left it behind for Bush to handle.

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