Feb. 4, 2005 – Noting that a prominent Republican senator harbors plans to use "sneaky" backdoor politics to end the prohibition on drilling for oil and gas in the pristine North Slope region of Alaska, Democratic lawmakers went on the offensive this week, introducing a preemptive bill that would designate the remaining areas of the contested wildlife refuge officially off-limits to oil drilling.
President Bush and congressional conservatives are pushing to permit "responsible exploration" of the estimated 4-10 billion barrels of oil buried beneath the Coastal Plain, a segment of the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR) that was exempted in 1980 when Congress changed most of the Reserveâ€™s status to wilderness area, protecting it from exploitation by mining interests.
Senators Joe Lieberman (D-Connecticut), Barbara Boxer (D-California) and Representative Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) on Wednesday addressed a rally organized by environmentalists to announce the re-introduction of a bill that would commit the contested 1.5 million acres as a permanently protected wilderness area called the Udall-Eisenhower Arctic Wilderness. The same bill flopped in 2004.
Environmental activists praised the proposed protective legislation. "The Refuge serves as the staging area for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds, denning habitat for polar bears, and calving grounds for the 130,000 member Porcupine River caribou herd," Carl Pope, director of the national environment organization Sierra Club, said in a press statement. "Moreover, the Refuge plays an integral part in the lives of the Gwich'in people who depend on the seasonal migrations of the caribou for both survival and cultural identity."
Environmentalists have for decades successfully pressured enough senators to keep the Coastal Plain protected against numerous attempts to release it to developers, preventing the necessary majority from forming despite yearly support for the change in the House, not to mention the Senateâ€™s rightward tilt.
Tired of losing to the minority, Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico -- the top Republican on the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who last month vowed to prioritize handing ANWR to developers -- plans to inject language empowering oil companies to engage in limited "exploration" into the 2006 budget legislation expected to reach Congress any day. According to United Press International, other key Republican senators have not indicated whether they will back Domenici's move to slip the ANWR language into the budget package.
While those in favor of drilling in ANWR have touted potential Alaskan energy development as an opportunity to gain American energy independence, environmentalists have warned that the relatively small amount of oil estimated to be available in the refuge is not worth the environmental damage likely to be caused by development of the area.
"Thereâ€™s simply too much at stake to let this majestic national icon become a number in the federal budget," said Pope. "The speculative revenue gains are too small and the sacrifice too great to jeopardize our natural heritage for a short-term supply of oil."
"If there ever was an occasion to support a filibuster, this is," Lieberman said at the rally. "There are not 60 senators who will vote for drilling." A McClatchy Newspapers reporter estimated Wednesdayâ€™s crowd size at 100.
While Democrats can use a filibuster to halt stand-alone legislation or an energy bill opening up ANWR, the budget package will only require a simple majority vote, and opposing budget legislation is considered politically dangerous.
Sponsors of the bill to reclaim the Coastal Plain area as specially protected wilderness are calling their proposal "bipartisan" because at least one Republican member is backing each chamberâ€™s version, but analysts do not expect the bill to serve more than a symbolic purpose.