Energy bill 'loathsome' despite sparing Arctic
By Sarah Wootton
On April 18, 54 senators voted against opening the Arctic Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling, the largest number - by far - ever to stand up for Arctic protection. It was hailed as the first major environmental loss for President George W. Bush, who began stumping for oil drilling in the Arctic as soon as he entered office.
For years, Congress has considered opening the Arctic to drilling and for the first time, it wasn't even close. Ten years ago, 58 senators voted with the oil industry to open the Arctic - compared to this year's 46 pro-oil votes. And, in 1995, the Republican-controlled Congress passed legislation to open the Arctic, but it didn't have the votes to override President Bill Clinton's veto.
Club leaders congratulated field staff and volunteers (and themselves), and thanked senators, but the celebration was fleeting. Soon after the Arctic vote, the Senate passed its energy bill replete with massive tax cuts and subsidies to fossil- fuel industries (which would allow Enron-like companies to run the power industry), a failure to raise fuel-economy standards for cars and light trucks and a lack of substantive improvements to energy efficiency and renewable energy sources (a mere 2 percent increase by 2020).
"It is a truly scandalous, loathsome, shameful, disturbing piece of legislation," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club.
Passage in the Senate by a vote of 88 to 11 sets the stage for a lengthy and cumbersome conference to attempt to reconcile the Senate bill with the House energy bill that passed last August. House leadership declared that oil exploration in the Arctic is an essential part of the bill but members of the Senate say it would be difficult - some say impossible - to pass a pro-drilling bill in the Senate.
"The Club must contribute the Arctic win to the hard work of the people out in the field," said Melinda Pierce, senior Washington representative on Alaska and wildlands issues. "We faced a barrage of reasons why we should drill the Arctic, and the people in the field very nimbly explained to their senators why they shouldn't be fooled by oil arguments."
Field activists put pressure on their senators at town meetings and train stations and on newspaper op-ed pages. Delaware Chapter and Alaska Coalition members, including Ron Zink dressed in a polar bear suit, met Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.) on the train platform to talk with him about protecting the Arctic. Matt Urban, Debbie Heaton and other chapter activists helped coordinate participation in a public forum at the University of Delaware, a meeting with Carper in his office and an annual, icy-cold "polar bear plunge." On the day of the Arctic vote, Carper called a meeting to tell environmentalists in person that he would be voting against drilling.
Previously in favor of opening to Arctic to drilling, Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) changed his mind after hundreds of pro-Arctic Ohioans phoned, faxed and e-mailed him, an effort spearheaded by the Ohio Chapter and the Club's Cincinnati organizer, Glen Brand. Once DeWine decided that he would vote against drilling, he wanted to let the Sierra Club know first. Brand received the good news from DeWine's main legislative aide on March 8 and was told to "spread the word."
Drilling proponents argued that Central Arctic caribou - and therefore Porcupine caribou - thrive living near an existing oil production area. Sierra Student Coalition leader Ben Gore argued in a letter to the Washington Post that Porcupine Herd caribou, unlike the mostly stationary Central Arctic herd, are migratory and travel from Canada to the narrow, coastal plain, where they calve.
The decisions by Carper and DeWine created a domino effect. "All these senators going public with their support of the Arctic gave us great momentum leading up to the vote," said Pierce.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) complimented Club staffers on excellent coverage in the Senate ("We hit every single office many, many times," said Pierce).
During the energy bill debates, senators orated about decreasing the nations' dependence on foreign oil, but failed to raise fuel-efficiency standards - "the single biggest step we can take to decrease our oil dependence," according to Dan Becker, director of the Club's Global Warming and Energy Program.
In addition to $4.9 billion in tax incentives and credits for oil and gas exploration and development, the Senate bill earmarks $4.9 billion in coal tax incentives, subsidies and research, and $2.3 billion to nuclear-power tax incentives and research and development. The Senate set a goal of 4 to 5 percent of electricity generated from renewable energy sources, which is a long way from the Club's suggested achievable 20 percent. And loopholes in the bill could allow mercury-emitting garbage incinerators and small trees (defined as less than 12 inches in diameter) to count as renewable energy. Renewables receive a $3.3 billion tax incentive.
Also troubling in the Senate bill is the slated extension of the Price-Anderson Act, which provides limited liability to the nuclear industry in the case of an accident but does nothing to protect the public.
In addition to having to resolve the question of drilling in the Arctic Refuge, the joint House-Senate conference must reconcile the bills' differences on consumer protection issues, electricity deregulation and whether to roll back other public land protections to promote oil and gas exploration.
What the federal government failed to do, however, California may. A new Club-supported bill, Assembly Bill 1058, would require the California Air Resources Board to set lower carbon dioxide emission standards for cars. This means cars and trucks will have to get better gas mileage, which is exactly what automakers convinced Congress they couldn't do. Automakers sell about 10 percent of their cars in California. If Gov. Gray Davis signs the bill into law, California, by calling the manufacturers' bluff, would help ensure that automakers build cars and light trucks that go farther on a gallon of gas.
Tell your senator and representative that the Senate and House bills are unacceptable and you want a cleaner, cheaper, safer energy policy or a letter to the editor. For more information and sample letters, go to www.sierraclub.org/energy/.
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