Playing Games With the Arctic: Congressional Shenanigans Continue, Arctic Refuge Safe for the Moment
Winter Solstice, 2005. Environmental advocates, with their letters and phones, faxes and petitions, and a lot of precious time, successfully pressed key U.S. senators to block an attempt by Big Oil, the White House, and pro-drilling congressmembers to slip drilling permissions into a military spending bill.
The land at issue was Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, home to a uniquely blended arctic and sub-arctic biocommunity on the North Slope of Alaska. The Refuge hosts up to 300,000 snow geese, and, according to the Porcupine Caribou Management Board, provides the key site for Porcupine caribou to bear their young. It’s also a crucial birthplace for polar bears. Disturbances can cause bears to leave their dens, which can, in turn, be fatal to dependent cubs. At the same time, these animals are endangered by changing weather patterns when gas is emitted by the end products of oil prospecting.
Most potential oil fields in the Refuge are considerably smaller than that of Prudhoe Bay’s giant field, so exploiting them would mean scattering industrial zones over the area. Acknowledging that the Refuge is critical to animals, Congress barred oil development there in 1980 and withdrew the Refuge’s coastal plain from mineral leasing.
But in November 2005, Ted Stevens, a Republican senator from Alaska, was pressing to authorize development of the coastal plain through the Budget Reconciliation bill. Stevens, a member of the Interior Department during the Eisenhower administration when the Arctic Wildlife Range was created, said, “Twenty-four years ago, during the debate on the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), I worked closely with Senator Scoop Jackson and Senator Paul Tsongas to ensure part of the Coastal Plain of this area remained open for oil and gas development.”Stevens also characterized extracting domestic oil from the Refuge’s coastal plain as serving an “important national security interest.”
After failing to keep drilling in the Budget Reconciliation bill, Senator Stevens concocted a new plan, attaching drilling permissions to the Defense Appropriations bill. Stevens doubted that legislators would oppose a bill to fund troops. Led by Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, the Senate voted against this second ploy as well. The lawmakers went home for the holidays, and for the moment, the Refuge was safe.
But oil prospecting has been kept off-limits only in the Refuge. Nearly 95% of Alaska's North Slope tundra is legally fair game for drilling. And oil enterprises anywhere on the North Slope industrialize wild lands. Their attending roads, pipelines, energy and processing plants, airports and gravel mines leave lasting footprints on the whole, and on the world’s waters and atmosphere. It’s high time the people of Alaska and elsewhere interrogate the idea that we can continue to drill, even as scientists and Native Alaskans warn us that whales, bears, and caribou are in serious danger of the effects of the burning of fossil fuels on the global ecology.
To date, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and oil fields including Prudhoe Bay have directly affected about 22,000 acres of tundra wetlands, with an industry that spans an area the size of Rhode Island. In 2000, BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. was charged $15.5 million in criminal fines and $6.5 million in civil penalties for three years of illegal dumping of benzene and other toxic wastes down Endicott oil wells. The Exxon Valdez devastated over 1,000 miles of Alaska coastline, and serious oil spills have happened since. North Slope oil carriers have polluted the entire western coast.
Animals have already paid a high price for our oil. Caribou with calves have generally avoided the North Slope roads and pipelines.When the pipeline separated a herd, caribou at the oil fields experienced significantly lower birth rates than distant members. In Prudhoe Bay, nesting populations of shorebirds decreased along oil field roads.
Alaskan residents are divided on the drilling issue. One of the visitors to our Web log, Jimmy Allen, believes tapping the local supply would lead to lower home heating oil prices for Alaskans. It’s unlikely to be so simple, however, as prices depend on global supply and demand rather than the site of an individual field. In fact, when oil from Prudhoe Bay entered the domestic market, and even as it reached full production, automotive fuel and oil prices went up, not down.
Some Alaskans refuse to argue the issue at all, simply telling us to “mind your own business.” But drilling for oil has effects for all of us — worldwide, in fact — and national refuge lands are not the exclusive property of Alaska residents.
Meanwhile, West of the Refuge….
In January, as activists were celebrating a reprieve for the Refuge, the Interior Department announced the opening of 400,000 acres on Alaska's North Slope for exploratory oil drilling. Government officials believe it can produce natural gas and about 2 billion barrels of oil for U.S. consumers, who collectively demand more than 20 million barrels of oil each day, much of it for animal agribusiness.
Considering that oil and agribusiness comprise a double whammy for animals, it seems obvious that extending rights to animals would be an excellent idea from an environmental perspective.
The Interior Department plans to open land about a quarter-mile from the ecologically sensitive Teshekpuk Lake. Environmentalists have predicted harm to the North Slope’s caribou and tundra swans, and serious effects on geese.
Drilling proponents have already vowed to get back to promoting Refuge drilling this spring so the work continues. With the help of our members and supporters, Friends of Animals will also address the root causes that lawmakers can’t or won’t. We’ll talk about the impact of agribusiness and its wasteful use of fossil fuels, and how we can empower ourselves, as individual people, to lighten our pressure on the global ecology as a whole.
Below you will find how the senators voted at the close of 2005. Cheers to the YEA votes.
48 YEA VOTES SUCCEEDED IN REMOVING the Arctic Refuge drilling provision from projects financed through the Defense Appropriations bill.
45 NAY VOTES PROMOTED DRILLING:
7 DID NOT VOTE: