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  December 2001 Features:
Don't Drill the Arctic, and Pass the Pumpkin Pie
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The Planet
Don't Drill the Arctic, And Pass the Pumpkin Pie

By Jenny Coyle

It's the holidays, and as family members gather around the fire and dig into plates of pumpkin pie a la mode, the conversation turns to national security and the renewed call for energy independence.

"What we must do," announces Uncle Burt, "is make use of the oil and gas sources on our home soil, especially in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. There is no longer a good reason not to drill there."

Spoons stop in mid-air and the rooms falls silent as all eyes turn to the environmental activist in the room - you. For a moment you freeze up colder than your ice cream. And then you remember that true energy independence isn't about more drilling, but about reducing America's need for oil.

"Actually, the key to energy independence lies in renewables and energy efficiency," you tell Uncle Burt. "We can make our cars and trucks go farther on a gallon of gas, make our homes more energy efficient, and develop new, clean energy sources such as solar and wind power.

"True energy independence," you continue, "requires an energy plan that reduces our reliance on nuclear and fossil fuels - not one that extracts more coal, oil and gas from our wildlands and traps another generation into an old-economy way of thinking."

Uncle Burt cries, "Uncle!" The spoons are returned to their plates, and a collective sigh of relief can be heard in the room.

These days, anyone who's talking about the tragic events of Sept. 11 is also engaging in a conversation about drilling in the Arctic.

"Some people are saying that it's a matter of patriotism to drill the refuge, like those who oppose it would rather leave the country vulnerable," said Debbie Boger, a Sierra Club energy staffer. "But when I explain to people about a better idea - freedom from dependence on fossil fuels, and greater reliance on renewables and energy efficiency - they start nodding their heads in agreement. Energy independence is true patriotism."

There's also the fact that the U.S. Geologic Survey says the refuge holds less than a six-month supply of oil that would take 10 years to bring on line. Raising fuel-economy standards for new cars, sport-utility vehicles and other light trucks to an average of 40 miles per gallon would save 3 million barrels of oil every day - more than we import from the Persian Gulf and could expect to get from the Arctic Refuge, combined.

Although proposals to drill the Arctic were kept out of recent anti-terrorism and airport-security legislation, President Bush in late October renewed his call for Congress to take up the damaging House energy package before adjourning.

The Club's message to Congress? "We're asking them to consider the energy package in the spring, and focus now on the immediate crises facing our nation," said Debbie Sease, the Club's legislative director. "Recrafting America's longer-term energy policy will require thoughtful deliberation, and time for such a debate just isn't available now."

In the meantime, Club activists around the country are educating the public about why drilling in the Arctic Refuge won't achieve energy security.

Georgia is a long way from Alaska, but the two states share something in common: several species of birds. The green-winged teal - a small, colorful songbird - winters in Georgia, but nests and raises its young in the Arctic Refuge. Other birds with similar dual-citizenship include the mallard, northern shoveler and sandpiper.

The Club's Georgia Chapter has formed the Alaska Coalition of Georgia, along with other environmental groups, unions and faith communities. Coalition members are working the phones and faxing like crazy from the chapter office in Atlanta.

"Drilling the Arctic will do nothing to decrease our energy system's vulnerability to terrorist attacks - last month one guy with a gun fired a bullet into the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and spilled 300,000 gallons of crude oil," said Sam Booher, Georgia Chapter chair. The Alaska Department of Environment and Conservation says the oil industry is responsible for more than 400 oil and toxic spills every year in Alaska.

"Our message to people here in Georgia is there are cheaper, cleaner, safer and more efficient ways to move toward energy independence," said Booher.

In Nebraska - whose sandhill cranes are among the migratory birds that nest in the Arctic - the Sierra Club held a press conference featuring Sandra Newman, an activist from the native Alaskan Gwich'in tribe. The Gwich'in, who depend on the 129,000-head Porcupine caribou herd for survival, oppose drilling in the Arctic.

Newman appeared in native dress that evening at a slide show presentation.

"I cannot find words to describe how moved everyone was by Sandra's description of her peoples' relationship with the earth and the caribou," said Nebraska Chapter Conservation Organizer Laura Krebsbach.

Perhaps they should've invited Uncle Burt.

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