Big win for wild things

March 23, 2003

IN A KEY test of sentiment, the Senate mustered a narrow bipartisan majority last week in favor of protecting Alaska's wildlife refuge from oil drilling.

It was likely not the end of the decades-long battle, but it was a crushing defeat for drilling supporters who might have expected better from a Republican Congress. This should be a moment of maximum opportunity for the Alaska officials, energy companies and labor leaders who have been aching to tap into the black gold they believe lies under the frozen tundra. Finally, they have both the president and congressional leadership emphatically on their side.

But the 52-48 vote reveals drilling advocates have lost ground politically. For many Republicans as well as Democrats, the Alaska refuge has become a kind of environmental Alamo - a place to make a last stand against the thoughtless plunder of irreplaceable resources for the sake of making a buck.

Senators and their constituents have come to realize that the chief argument for drilling in the refuge known as ANWR is a fraud: There's not nearly enough oil there by anyone's estimate to make the United States energy independent, or even to lower the price much.

Far more effective would be raising the fuel efficiency standards on SUVs. If those increasingly ubiquitous vehicles were required to get the same gas mileage as regular cars, more oil would be saved than drilling in the refuge would produce.

The Bush administration, and other supporters of opening the last unspoiled portion of Alaska to drilling, claim it can be undertaken without disturbing the caribou, musk ox, prairie chickens and other wild things making their homes there.

"It's almost impossible to prove that ANWR will be damaged," asserted New Mexico Sen. Pete V. Domenici.

But as a majority of the Senate wisely concluded, there's simply no justification for taking the chance.

Drilling supporters won't give up easily. They'll return with all manner of procedural tricks. The Republican House will back their plan, and they'll try to blackmail the Senate into reversing last week's vote.

The drillers' task will be much harder now, though. At last, 52 senators - including eight Republicans - have put their reputations on the line: This Alamo cannot be taken if they stand their ground.

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