Diverse coalition set to back energy bill

Oil industry least visible among groups supporting drilling in Arctic refuge

March 20, 2002|By Samuel Loewenberg | Samuel Loewenberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration and Senate Republicans have assembled an unconventional coalition to try to rally popular support for their energy bill, which includes a contentious plan to open up the protected Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling.

The improbable allies include B'nai B'rith and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Teamsters and the National Black Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Seafarers' International Union. Supporters say they stand a better chance of success if they can show that their plan enjoys broad support and does not simply serve the interests of the oil industry.

"The B'nai B'rith leadership has been viewing this issue from a national security perspective," said Jason Epstein, the organization's director of legislative affairs.

"We need to do whatever is necessary to ensure that the United States acts decisively overseas in the war against terrorism. And that means doing more to promote energy and independence."

At a meeting at the White House on Monday morning, President Bush, Republican Sen. Frank H. Murkowski of Alaska and Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton called on veterans groups to ramp up their lobbying campaign to promote drilling in the wildlife refuge in the name of national security.

Supporters hope that their alliance - in which oil companies are maintaining a low profile - will pressure the Senate's Democratic majority to bring the issue to a vote in coming weeks. The energy bill passed the House last year.

The Bush administration and Murkowski had long pushed to open the environmentally sensitive Arctic refuge to drilling. But the issue gained momentum in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, with many Republicans saying that reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil would, in effect, aid the war on terrorism.

Tapping the oil in Alaska would drastically reduce the need for imports from the Persian Gulf, according to David Woodruff, a spokesman for Murkowski. Roughly 14 percent of the oil the United States consumes each day comes from the gulf.

Claims of inflated figures

But opponents in Congress and environmental groups express grave concerns that exploration and drilling would mar one of the country's last untouched wilderness areas. The threat to the environment is not justified, they argue, because the supporters' projection that the refuge contains up to 10 billion barrels of recoverable oil is overblown.

The most recent report from the U.S. Geological Survey bolsters the opponents' point. The survey estimates that the Arctic refuge contains slightly more than 3 billion barrels of oil that it would be cost-effective to extract. The nation consumes about 7 billion barrels of oil a year. Even if the drilling plan were approved, production would not begin until at least 2010.

With Congress going into recess next week, the veterans groups are launching an aggressive grass-roots lobbying campaign targeting lawmakers who are still on the fence. The two largest veterans groups, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, together claim nearly 5 million members.

List of targeted senators

At the White House meeting Monday, the veterans groups were given a list of senatorial targets: Sens. Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, John McCain of Arizona and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, all Republicans; and Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Blanche Lambert Lincoln of Arkansas and Jon Corzine of New Jersey, all Democrats.

"When the members are relaxing in their offices and focusing on their elections over the break, then the Legionnaires that are in their local districts or states will come into their office with the same message," said Peter Gaytan, deputy legislative director for the American Legion. "It's very effective."

The Republicans can also claim support from Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat who frequently sides with oil and gas interests, as well as several conservative senior citizen groups, and Latino and African-American business groups.

Opponents say the broad support the Republicans are claiming is exaggerated and that much of their backing has come from passing on overly optimistic figures about the amount of oil available in the refuge.

"What they are doing is, they are giving these people misleading information," said Elliot Negin, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of many environmental groups that oppose the bill.

Negin noted that most unions and Jewish groups have either come out against drilling in the refuge or have taken no position.

Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America, which favors drilling, said his group was courted by the Republicans, notably Murkowski and Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

"Senators Murkowski and Santorum were eager and interested in having support from the Jewish community," Diament said. "They have been encouraging Jewish groups to get involved for some time."

The one group conspicuously absent from the debate has been the energy industry. An oil lobbyist who spoke on condition of anonymity explained why the industry was not openly pushing for drilling.

"The decision was made based on a lot of experience that it wasn't going to happen with just the industry's voice," the lobbyist said. "A lot of times you won't see an oil industry name, but we are putting a lot of resources behind it.

"It's a classic thing: how best to deliver your message. The best news we got last year was that the trade unions and the farm groups cared, and that's been very, very effective."

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