Emboldened by the November election, President Bush has once again included drilling revenues from the Arctic Refuge in his budget. A congressional vote on the budget is anticipated the first week of April.
"There's too much at stake to let this national icon become a number in the federal budget," says Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope. "The speculative revenue gains are too small and the sacrifice too great to jeopardize our natural heritage for a short-term supply of oil."
Meanwhile, on February 2 Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Representatives Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) introduced bills in the Senate and House to designate the coastal plain of the refuge as wilderness. A Zogby public opinion poll released in December 2004 showed that Americans oppose drilling in the Arctic Refuge by 55 to 38 percent.
Efforts to designate the coastal plain of the refuge as wilderness began 25 years ago. In 1980, when Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the coastal plain was slated for wilderness protection, but last-minute lobbying by oil interests foiled this effort. For the last decade, drilling proponents have tried to use the budget process to advance arctic drilling by including an assumption of revenue in the federal budget resolution. This made it as far as the president's desk in 1995 before Bill Clinton's veto killed it. More recent attempts to include drilling in the budget passed the House but failed in the Senate, by 54-46 in 2001 and 52-48 in 2003. But the number of drilling proponents in Congress swelled with last November's election, so the upcoming Senate vote could be exceedingly close.
"The choice before us is clear," says Melinda Pierce of the Sierra Club's Wildlands Campaign. "We can continue to rely on petroleum products from pristine wilderness areas and unstable parts of the world, or we can aggressively pursue a clean energy policy that would free America from its dangerous dependence on fossil fuels."
America's cars and trucks consume 8 million barrels of oil per day, pumping global warming gases into the atmosphere, hamstringing our foreign policy, and putting public lands across the nation at risk from oil exploration and development. Shifting to more renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power would create jobs, protect the environment, and make the United States safer and more secure.
Our oil dependence hits the Arctic with a double-whammy: first by drilling for the oil, then by burning it. Global warming is irrevocably changing the arctic landscape. Storms tear off chunks of beach once shielded by permafrost or arctic pack ice. Erosion and flooding have increased, imperiling Native Alaskan villages. Airstrips are swamped, ice cellars that once stored food in the permafrost are filling with water, and buildings are in danger of toppling into the sea. Meanwhile, oil drilling already sprawls across more than 1,000 square miles of Alaska's North Slope, and threatens to despoil more as-yet-untouched wilderness.
"We don't have to continue down this path," says Brendan Bell, an energy expert in the Sierra Club's Washington, D.C., office. "If all new vehicles sold in the U.S. used existing technology to average 40 miles per gallon within ten years, the country would save more oil than we currently import from the entire Persian Gulf or could ever take out of the Arctic Refuge, combined."
Bell is coordinating a national day of house parties on Saturday, March 12. Club members across the country will be gathering with friends and neighbors to view a new Sierra Club Productions documentary, "Oil on Ice," which connects the fate of the Arctic Refuge and the communities that depend on it to the decisions America makes about energy policy. The Sierra Club is supplying the DVD, along with materials to help you and your friends take action to protect the refuge. If you would like to host an Oil on Ice house party, go to sierraclub.org/oilonice.
(Of course, if March 12 doesn't work for you, you can hold a house party any time.)
The 1.5 million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, the summer calving grounds for the Porcupine Caribou Herd, is the last place in North America where the full spectrum of arctic life is protected in one seamless expanse. The 130,000-head Porcupine Herd is central to the culture of the Gwich'in ("people of the caribou"), who rely on the animals for food and economic subsistence. Caribou meat is traded for other goods, skins are used for boots, slippers, purses, bags, and other items of clothing, and bones are used to make tools.
The Gwich'in have established a Web site (www.alaska.net/~gwichin/index.html) to introduce themselves to the broader culture, facilitate communication, and speak out on issues of importance to the Gwich'in Nation. Atop each and every page, whether focused on history, culture, or politics, is a banner that reads, "Please help us save the Arctic Refuge."
Gray wolves, black, brown, and polar bears, musk oxen, and peregrine falcons also thrive in the coastal plain of the refuge - the last 5 percent of Alaska's North Slope that is closed to drilling. Even proponents of drilling concede that the potentially recoverable oil reserves under the refuge would supply America's energy needs for less than six months.
"Protecting the refuge is a test of whether this country has a conservation ethic," says Senator John Kerry in the February 2005 issue of Outside magazine. He notes that oil companies operating the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and Prudhoe Bay fields spill oil or other chemicals an average of at least once a day. "President Bush and pro-drilling forces cite special-interest junk-science to argue that they can limit the damage by drilling only in 2,000 acres. But oil is scattered throughout the refuge, so drilling in 2,000 acres could mean 40 separate 50-acre footprints. Even they know the line they're selling is bunk."
To learn more, visit sierraclub.org/wildlands/arctic.