ANWR Drilling Closer to Passage

Fri Oct. 28, 2005 11:55 AM EDT

In July Kaarle Strailey, a lanky 24-year-old Berkeley graduate and friend of mine, biked 240 miles along the single access road to the Alaskan arctic and then hiked through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in an effort to draw media attention to the imminent threat of oil-drilling in the area. He then traveled to Washington, DC, where he joined hundreds of other activists in a flurry of last-ditch lobbying to convince moderate Republicans in Congress to vote against ANWR drilling. The oil lobby has been pushing for drilling since the 1980s, but it has never come so close to succeeding as now. And, with supportive majorities in both Houses and a president who has placed ANWR drilling at the center of his energy plan, pro-drilling lobbyists are hardly even breaking a sweat.

On Wednesday, the House Resources Committee stuffed legislation that would lease ANWR land to oil companies and end a 24-year old moratorium on offshore drilling, into the $34.7 billion federal budget reconciliation bill. Last week the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee had passed a similar bill, although the committee chairman thinks the offshore part will get cut out. By squeezing the language into the reconciliation bill, the legislation will be immune from the Democratic filibuster that has so far kept Arctic drilling at bay.

A bill to open ANWR hasn't passed both floors of the Congress since the Clinton years, when it died under presidential veto. Though Arctic drilling idea was dropped from the energy bill passed earlier this year, it was explicitly kept in the FY2006 budget resolution by a narrow vote. Since then the House votes approving Arctic drilling have been continually squelched by the Senate. so the Senate's recent shift in opinion has sent preservationists of the so-called American Serengeti—the last stretch of untouched wilderness in the U.S.—scrambling.

Rep. Markey, one of the Democrats on the House Resources Committee taking a lead in attacking the bill, released a press release yesterday after his proposed amendment to strike the ANWR drilling provision from the budget was defeated:

So the choice comes down to this - do we raise $2.4 billion by prying open and forever destroying a national wildlife refuge, overturning forty years of established environmental policy, threatening the way of life of the Gwich'in peoples, and allowing the oil and gas industry to select any of our other 544 national wildlife refuges as their next target, or do we give the Secretary the discretion to raise by a tiny fraction the royalty rate paid by the wealthiest corporations in the world for producing oil on the public's land? This is simply a question of whether we would rather protect public land or big oil companies.

ANWR's pristine and contested 1002 area—1.5 million acres on Alaska's northeast coast—is the migratory birthing ground for the Porcupine River caribou herd, upon which the hunting and cultural traditions of the native Gwich'in tribe depend. Not to be all doom and gloom, but really, with the support of the Senate budget committee, the President's support in pocket, and a House that has repeatedly voted in favor of drilling, these could be the last moments before the end. The only hope for ANWR may come when the budget bill comes back to the full Senate for a vote after reconciliation. At that point, moderate Republicans may—possibly—disagree on various spending cuts and help to throw out the budget altogether.

Oil companies say that ANWR drilling will relieve pressure on gas prices and help businesses, but in truth, it won't make a dent of difference for another decade and will only marginally alleviate America's foreign-oil dependence. (Here's the MoJo exclusive on the new wave of American revivalism: Petroltheism.) As one oil exec admitted to Paul Roberts last year, "even if all the off-limits land were opened for drilling, all the new gas we could bring on-line wouldn't be enough to replace all the production we're losing from older fields. We'd barely keep production flat."