BY TOM VALTIN
Think the Senate's vote in March means drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a done deal? It's not.
It remains illegal to drill the coastal plain of the refuge-the last 5 percent of Alaska's North Slope where drilling remains off-limits. Both houses of Congress would need to vote to reverse this before any drilling could occur. But first, the budget resolution must go through conference committee to iron out differences between the House and Senate spending plans.
What the Senate did in March was vote to include projected revenues from drilling the Arctic Refuge in the Federal Budget Resolution. "But there are numerous controversial items besides Arctic drilling in the budget," says Sierra Club public lands expert Melinda Pierce. "It's far from clear that Congress will be able to pass any budget resolution this year."
If the House and Senate do manage to agree on a resolution, it would then be hashed over in the two committees of jurisdiction in the House and Senate, at which point the law that prohibits drilling could be changed. After that, the next step is passing the overall Budget Reconciliation Bill. Only then would actual legislation authorizing drilling in the Arctic Refuge come to a vote. And even if that vote passed, the Budget Reconciliation Bill would itself be subject to a reconciliation conference.
"The budget vote is only the opening round of a very complex chess game," Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope says. Still, its ramifications are potentially far-reaching. In an op-ed for USA Today Online, Pope wrote that the vote didn't just threaten the Arctic Refuge, it "started the clock ticking for every special place that oil and gas interests want for their own exclusive benefit-the California, Florida, and Atlantic coasts, the Rocky Mountain Front, the Great Lakes, Otero Mesa, the list goes on."
As part of their efforts to educate the public about the issue, in the weeks leading up to the Senate vote, Sierra Club members and allies hosted more than 1,700 house parties nationwide to screen "Oil on Ice," a new documentary film about the Arctic Refuge, its wildlife, and the native people who depend on it. (For more, see ClubBeat, p.8.)
Most of these screenings, which produced a last-minute deluge of letters, e-mails, and phone calls to senators, took place the weekend of March 12-13, as the Senate vote loomed. But when on March 16 a bipartisan group of senators led by Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) offered an amendment to strip Arctic drilling revenues from the budget bill, it lost by a razor-thin margin of 51-49.
Drilling in the Arctic Refuge has long been a centerpiece of the Bush administration's energy policy. But there are cheaper, quicker, safer, and cleaner energy solutions that will safeguard the wild places Americans care about. "Even the oil companies know that America's energy future does not lie in the Arctic Refuge," says Pope.
Sales of big SUVs and pickups have stumbled lately in the face of high gas prices, leading even some conservative Republicans to join environmentalists in urging the nation to wean itself from its dependence on foreign oil, citing national security concerns. A late-March survey sponsored by the nonpartisan Civil Society Institute found that two-thirds of Americans feel it is "patriotic" to buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle.
"We have our work cut out for us," Pope says, "but we have just begun to fight. If we take the initiative we can win; maybe not in the first round, but when it counts-in the end."
Go to sierraclub.org/wildlands/arctic to learn more about what you can do to help protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Sign our petition to protect the refuge at sierraclub.org/petition/arctic. Write a letter to your member of Congress or your local newspaper. Talking points and sample letters can be found at sierraclub.org/wildlands/arctic/sampleletter.asp.
Call the Arctic Action Hotline at (888) 894-5325 to let your senators know that you appreciate their vote to protect the refuge, or that you're disappointed they voted to allow oil drilling in this pristine wilderness. Find out how they voted at sierraclub.org/wildlands/arctic/vote.asp.
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