Senate Votes to Allow Drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The issue of whether to tap Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas has been highly debated for more than two decades. For years, legislation to allow such drilling has been blocked in the Senate by filibusters spearheaded by Democratic senators. Yet last month, Senate GOP leaders used a back door procedural maneuver, attaching a drilling measure to the 2006 budget resolution. The move circumvented the threat of a filibuster by Democrats, which requires 60 votes. Instead, a budget measure requires only 51 votes to be passed by the Senate.

The issue of whether to tap Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas has been highly debated for more than two decades. For years, legislation to allow such drilling has been blocked in the Senate by filibusters spearheaded by Democratic senators. Yet last month, Senate GOP leaders used a back door procedural maneuver, attaching a drilling measure to the 2006 budget resolution. The move circumvented the threat of a filibuster by Democrats, which requires 60 votes. Instead, a budget measure requires only 51 votes to be passed by the Senate.

In an effort to oppose drilling in the Arctic Refuge, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) introduced an amendment that would strip the drilling language from the budget resolution. However, the measure was defeated on March 16 by the narrowest of margins: 49 to 51. Seven Republican senators joined 42 Democratic senators to support the amendment against opening the refuge, and two Democratic senators joined 49 Republican senators to oppose it.

The Senate's rejection of the Cantwell amendment was a major victory for President Bush, who has made opening up a portion of the Arctic Refuge for energy exploration a priority since he took office in January 2001. As a former oil man, he believes drilling in the refuge will decrease US dependence on foreign oil. While proponents contend there are an estimated 10 billion barrels of oil in the refuge, there is a difference between technically recoverable oil and economically recoverable oil drilling companies would find is financially worth the effort to pursue. US Geological Survey officials indicate economically recoverable oil is the more relevant figure, and it has yet to be determined for this case. Moreover, senators supporting the Cantwell amendment were quick to point out it will be around 10 years before any oil from the refuge could actually hit America's refineries.

Regardless of the amount of oil and the length of time it will take to reach US markets, the risk the drilling will pose to the area's ecological integrity and its diverse wildlife cannot be denied. The Arctic Refuge is a 19 million acre natural wonder containing marshes, lagoons and rivers that run through the rugged foothills of the Brooks Range and the expansive icy waters of the Beaufort Sea. It is also the nation's largest wildlife preserve, home of 180 species of birds and 36 species of mammals, including three species of North American bears. Nine marine mammal species live along its coast and 36 fish species inhabit its rivers and lakes.

Despite claims by proponents that oil tapping can occur in a responsible and environmentally friendly manner, oils spills and noise and air pollution—commonly associated with drilling activities—could have devastating effects on the refuge's wildlife population. Moreover, the targeted zone for energy exploration, a costal plain bordering the Beaufort Sea, is considered the refuge's biological heart because it supports millions of migratory birds, polar bears, marine mammals and musk oxen. It is also the principal summer range for more than 100,000 porcupine caribou who travel hundreds of miles each year to bear their offspring in the area, as well as the last fragment of Alaska coastline not yet open for drilling. The rejection of the Cantwell amendment is also devastating to the development of renewable and alternative energy sources—it is only through working to use less oil that our country can truly become less dependent on the limited resource.

The fate of the Arctic Refuge has yet to be sealed. A provision related to the refuge was not included in the 2006 Budget Resolution. The measure must now be passed as part of the budget reconciliation process between the House and the Senate before it can be sent to President Bush for his signature. The American public has consistently supported the protection of the Arctic Refuge in overwhelming numbers, and today we must make our voices heard. Please contact oil company executives to let them know you won't buy gas from the Arctic Refuge; ask them to pledge not to drill this unspoiled land.

As we go to press, Congress is likely finalizing this deal. You can still proclaim your position to your Members of Congress, as well as local newspapers and civic groups.