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Published: Sunday, 2/23/2003

Pristine North Slope still has Big Oil drooling

One has to admire Big Oil and its stranglehold on so many of our nation's lawmakers and political executives.

Big Oil has been trying for 23 years, ever since the passage of the Alaska Lands Act of 1980, to chip off a corner of the crown jewel of the national wildlife refuge system, way up on the arctic North Slope of Alaska. So it can drill for more oil and keep using its aging Alaska Pipeline.

It has not claimed the prize - yet. But that has not kept it from trying.

The prize is the “1002” land in the sprawling, 19.5-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In the 1.5 million acres of the 1002, so the oilmen plead, lies energy salvation.

The 1002 is the flat coastal plain of ANWR, stretching from the Beaufort Sea to the Brooks Range. It may seem empty - nothing but miles and miles of miles and miles - to the untrained, or uncaring, eye.

But the coastal plain actually is the biological heart of the refuge. Which is why those who know and care have worked so hard for so long to conserve it.

The plain serves as the breeding grounds and as migratory habitat for more than 200 species of wildlife, from polar bears, grizzly bears, caribou, and musk oxen to more than 160 species of birds, many of which migrate through northwest Ohio and which number in the millions.

The 1002 also is critical as the calving grounds for the 130,000 caribou of the famous Porcupine herd. The Gwich'In, an Athabascan subsistence culture, depends on the Porcupine herd and considers the 1002 land sacred, the heart of their lives as Caribou People.

To bring the point closer to home, to ignore the natural value of the arctic coastal plain is akin to writing off what remains of the valuable, internationally recognized wetlands region of western Lake Erie as so much marsh muck.

Like the arctic plain, these wetlands are not a flat, blank eyesore that should be drained, filled, and developed - for more condos and marinas and strip-malls here, or drill-rigs and pipelines there.

The George W. Bush administration has shown itself little more than a sequel to the anti-environment, anti-conservation administration of Ronald Reagan and his infamous environmental hatchetman, James Watt, when it comes to ANWR.

In the current Republican-dominated Senate there even is a back-door move afoot to slip 1002 drilling into the federal budget reconciliation bill this spring. This after a bipartisan team in the Senate dumped a drilling plan just a year ago.

The Bush petroleum posse and Big Oil's paid-for politicians just don't get it, don't understand the word “no.”

To be fair, even Democrat Bill Clinton did not do as much as he could to end this endless ANWR debate. He could have declared the 1002 a national monument, as he did the Kaiparowits Plateau region of southern Utah. Such a declaration, though not ideal protection, at least would have placed another roadblock in front of the bulldozer.

Now come U.S. Reps. Ed Markey (D., Mass.) and Nancy Johnson (R., Conn.) with the Morris K. Udall Wilderness Act of 2003. It would permanently protect ANWR's 1002 area as wilderness, just like the rest of the refuge. The bill thus would permanently end efforts to drill there (short of the cumbersome and remote possibility of declassifying wilderness).

“If we allow drilling in the Arctic Refuge, we have failed twice,” said Markey in introducing the bill, formally known as H.B. 770. “We will remain just as dependent on oil for our energy future and we will have hastened the demise of an irreplaceable wildlife habitat.”

The Udall bill, introduced 10 days ago, had 128 bipartisan co-sponsors, the highest number of original co-sponsors ever, according to Markey.

That is a marvelous show of support, representative of the majority of Americans' attitudes - for the last 20-plus years. Even though it has as much of a chance of passage in the Republican Senate, or ultimately evading a Bush veto, as a snowball in Hades, at least the Udall bill makes an important political statement.

“Sacrificing the crown jewel of our national wildlife refuge system for a six-month supply of oil that might be available 10 years from now is unconscionable,” asserted Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League.

To think that ANWR oil would significantly reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil is simple-minded at best. This is a nation where administration after administration has failed to set down a coherent, long-term energy policy rooted in a conservation ethic rather than short-term energy profits of a magnitude that would make a sheik swoon.

ANWR is one of the few intact ecosystems left on earth, a system in which the only management needed is to let it be, to leave only footprints and take only memories

All of Big Oil's pooh-poohing aside, drilling in the 1002 - and running pipeline and bulldozing up gravel tote-roads and digging waste-pits - would change the wilderness character of ANWR forever. No matter how carefully drilling and extraction would be done - which is a pipedream in itself, given the industry track record at nearby Prudhoe Bay.

Would we dam the Grand Canyon just to wheel up a few more watts of hydroelectric power? Or put a cork in Yellowstone's Old Faithful just to bubble up some heat energy?

So much for leaving a natural heritage to our children and grandchildren. ANWR should be the last place on earth we drill for oil, not the next.



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