Arctic refuge backers rally behind legislation

Move to protect plain permanently takes aim at rival pro-drilling bill

March 01, 2001|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Environmental advocates in Congress fired back against pro-drilling forces yesterday with legislation that would ban development of oil fields in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a pristine 1.5 million-acre meeting place for the 150,000 caribou of the porcupine herd, as well as millions of birds, polar bears, grizzlies, musk oxen, wolves and moose.

"One of the most magnificent wildlife reserves in America has been targeted for oil and gas development," said Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who is co-sponsoring the House bill, which would give the coastal plain permanent wilderness status. "It is threatened as never before and will lose its wild, untrammeled character forever if we do not organize to fight this threat."

The House and Senate bills, launched amid a parade of speeches by high-profile members of Congress - among them the Democratic co-sponsors, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York - turned up the heat on an already emotional dispute. "This is the most important environmental issue of this Congress, and we will prevail," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt.

The counterattack came two days after the introduction of a 300-page bill, introduced by Senate Republicans on Monday, that would open up the refuge to drilling as part of a proposed energy policy. That bill aims to cut the nation's use of foreign oil to 50 percent, from the current 56 percent, by spurring production of oil, as well as natural gas, coal and nuclear energy, and includes tax breaks to promote production. Its most controversial feature is the plan to drill in the refuge, an idea backed by President Bush.

Supporters of drilling say new technology allows companies to develop oil fields without harming wildlife. "We are in the middle of an energy crisis," said Republican Sen. Frank H. Murkowski of Alaska, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "There is certainly no reason to harm America's energy security and make us even more dependent on energy from unstable foreign sources."

But opponents of drilling said yesterday that the amount of oil likely to come out of the refuge is too small to risk spoiling "America's Serengeti." The federal government estimates that the refuge could hold 3.2 billion to 16 billion barrels of oil (though it could not get to consumers for at least five years). Those who want to ban drilling argue instead for a policy that promotes conservation and development of renewable sources.

Joe Geldhof, an Alaska attorney and volunteer with Republicans for Environmental Protection, said the GOP had been "held captive" by the natural resource industries for two decades. "It's killing the party," he said. "There's no way in the short term or the long term the U.S. can drill its way out of the energy situation we're in."

Elaine Alexie, a member of the Gwich'in Nation, a Native American tribe, came from Canada to lobby American lawmakers. She said her ancestors have relied on caribou that wander into the refuge. She said the "caribou provides not only food but shelter and clothing. ... The refuge is considered a very sacred place, the birthing place for caribou, the place where life begins."

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