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  April 2001 Features:
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The Planet
Clash Over Arctic

Whether to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness or drill it for oil is quickly shaping up to be one of the big environmental face-offs of the year.

ArcticOn Feb. 26, Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) introduced S. 388, the National Security Energy Act of 2001, which includes a provision to drill the refuge. Two days later, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass) and Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) joined forces to introduce bills - S. 411 and H.R. 770 - to designate the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge a wilderness area, offering it the highest level of federal protection.

With California's energy shortage as a backdrop, Murkowski, with the support of President Bush, is portraying his plan to drill in the Arctic as a way for the country to gain energy independence. But that's not what it will do, said the Sierra Club's Melinda Pierce.

"This is not an energy bill, it's an energy industry bill," Pierce said.

Murkowski's bill contains few conservation measures, such as incentives for energy efficiency - but it does provide tax breaks for refinery construction and other industry-friendly activities.

The irony is that, while California is being used as an excuse to promote Murkowski's plan, the state derives only 1 percent of its electricity from oil. And the U.S. Geologic Survey estimates that the Arctic holds only 4.3 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil - less than a six-month supply of oil for America.

The irony continues in Bush's first budget, introduced on the heels of the Murkowski bill. Bush's plan contains $1 billion in funding for renewable-energy research, but in what Pierce calls a cynical ploy, the money would come from taxes and fees on Arctic oil leases.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) has promised to filibuster bills to drill the Arctic. A filibuster is a move to block action on an item by controlling the Senate floor for an unlimited time. It can be ended through legislative agreement, or by invoking cloture, which requires approval by 60 senators. The Senate is split 50-50 by Democrats and Republicans.

In the meantime, Sierra Club activists are pushing two bills and lobbying against the other. On March 5, 150 Sierra Student Coalition members stormed the nation's capitol and met with Congress members to urge protection of the Arctic. Murkowski's bill has 13 co-sponsors, while Lieberman's has 25 and Markey's has 126.

"These lands represent the last wild, unspoiled places in America," said Dave Westman, an SSC member and a senior at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. "They're our lands, not oil lands."

Read more about the Arctic

Photo courtesy Douglas Canfield 2001

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