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The Planet

Big Oil's Sneak Attack on Arctic Refuge

B.J. Bergman

After 1991's nationwide outpouring of grassroots opposition to drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - and the Sierra Club's climactic victory over the Johnston-Wallop energy bill you may have thought Alaska's last unspoiled stretch of coastal wilderness was safe, at least for the moment, from the clutches of Big Oil. If so, think again. In the 104th Congress, the ends justify the means. And in order to open the arctic coastal plain to oil exploration, industry allies have hit on a characteristically sneaky strategy: build dubious revenues from oil leases into the 1996 budget bill, thereby dumping on Clinton's desk a choice between preserving 125 miles of Alaska's North Slope or keeping the U.S. government operational. In contrast to 1991, when Sierra Club activists had nearly a year to rally wilderness supporters, the 1995 legislative battle could be over by fall. "This is a back-door attack on our last arctic wilderness," said Melinda Pierce, the Club's Arctic Refuge specialist in Washington, D.C. "The oil lobby can't persuade Americans to let it ravage the refuge, so it's decided to sneak in while the public is asleep. Unless we sound the alarm, (Alaska Sen. Frank) Murkowski will be right when he calls it the `Arctic Oil Reserve.'" Backed by legislators from heavily oil dependent states like Alaska and Louisiana, multinational petroleum companies have long looked to the Arctic Refuge as the likely successor to Alaska's Prudhoe Bay, where full-scale drilling has caused significant environmental damage. Comparable operations in the remote Arctic Refuge would bring not only massive oil rigs, but a 1,700 acre network of roadways connecting 100 miles of pipeline, production facilities, airfields, gravel pits and water treatment plants. And all this in a region known as "America's Serengeti," a sanctuary for polar bears, musk-oxen, wolverines, millions of migratory birds, and the 160,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd, which migrates from Canada each spring to use the coastal plain as its principal calving ground. The native Gwich'in people depend on the caribou for their survival.

The Sierra Club spearheaded efforts to protect the refuge in 1991, when President Bush made the opening of the 1.5 million-acre stretch of coast the only section of Alaska's northern coast still offlimits to development the cornerstone of his "National Energy Strategy." The Kennebunkport Texan's oilbased strategy was written into legislation proposed by Sens. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) and J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), then the chairman of the pivotal Senate Energy Committee. On Nov. 1, 1991 - after months of all-out grassroots organizing by Club activists, and with the Gulf War still fresh in Americans' minds - the Johnston- Wallop bill suffered a crushing defeat on the floor of the Senate.

Today, however, the Gulf War has given way to the War on the Environment. And the Gingrich-Dole 104th is not about to charge headlong into near-certain defeat. Instead, the anti-environmentalist caucuses in both houses of Congress have simply written revenues from arctic oil leasing into their balanced-budget resolution, assuming billions of dollars in revenues over the next seven years. Procedural questions aside, critics say the projections are grossly inflated, especially given Interior Department studies suggesting minuscule odds of a commercially viable strike. Between now and the fall - actual deadlines are proving slippery - Congress will have to approve a specific budget for the 1996 fiscal year, and offer amendments to make any needed changes in existing law. In the case of the Arctic, that task is expected to be left to the Senate Energy Committee, now headed by Murkowski(R), and the House Resources Committee, chaired by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), another longtime advocate of opening the coastal plain. So Club leaders are gearing up for battles on the floors of the House and Senate, where they hope to strip any drilling provisions from the final `96 budget. Should drilling advocates prevail in floor votes, it would then be up to the president to veto the entire bill - the notorious "train wreck" scenario. Only a new chorus of public opposition to arctic drilling, warn Club leaders, can prevent Congress - which knows only too well how Americans feel about the Alaskan wilderness - from surreptitiously handing one of the nation's great public treasures over to private oil interests. "We can keep the refuge pristine and protected, just as we did in 1991," says Pierce. "But time's running out. We need to act now." To take action: Urge your representative and senators to make sure arctic drilling is not included in the 1996 budget or anywhere else, for that matter.

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