Victory for the Arctic

Just four days shy of Earth Day, the United States Senate voted 54-46 against opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas drilling. In a year dominated by President George W. Bush's energy-centric plan, the victory couldn't have been a more timely present for Democrats and an environmental community that has lobbied extensively against pro-oil Republicans and developers.

"The Senate's overwhelming rejection of oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge sends a strong message to President Bush that Americans want clean energy and a clean environment," said League of Conservation Voters president Deb Callahan in a written statement. "When faced with a choice between protecting our natural resources for the public good and giving in to the White House's call to exploit them for private gain, the Senate chose the public good."

Short the 60 votes needed to win and to end the debate on an amendment to give the president drilling privileges, Republicans were decidedly bitter. The measure had been touted by Republicans as a way to establish U.S. oil self-reliance and move away from tapping Middle Eastern sources that included Iraq's Saddam Hussein. With a growing conflict in the Middle East that shows no signs of slowing, domestic drilling, proponents argued, was to become America's solution to its dwindling oil supply.

"What was proved today is we need more Republicans in the United State Senate," said Senator Frank H. Murkowski of Alaska, a proponent of the Arctic drilling measure. Bush expressed his sentiments through his proverbial mouthpiece, spokesman Ari Fleischer. "The Senate missed an opportunity to lead America to greater independence. The president will continue to fight for the tens of thousands of jobs that are created by opening ANWR, as well as, more importantly, for the need for America to be able to achieve more energy independence that would result from opening ANWR."

Nearly one year ago, the 1.5 million-acre refuge -- which President Dwight Eisenhower established in 1960 to protect the caribou, musk-oxen, migratory birds, polar bears and other wildlife -- was working its way up the endangered environment list. The Arctic region certainly had been threatened before. Congress, with a Republican-controlled House and Senate, approved drilling in 1995 as part of a budget bill before Clinton vetoed it. In August last year, the House had approved the measure to begin Arctic drilling, a divisive issue in the Senate from the get-go. The Republicans however, stalled when Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., began pushing for an increase in automobile fuel efficiency. Autos and SUVs drain 70 percent of the 19 million barrels of oil used each day. According to Interior Department estimates, ANWR would only supply about 1.9 million barrels a day at its peak production.

"The solution is not in the Arctic," said Kerry, who said more Republicans should have supported the fuel efficiency measure to avoid the push for drilling.

While the Democratic filibuster deserves its fair share of praise in the victory, environmental groups should also be congratulated. Oil proponents like the Teamsters lobbyists, some Alaskan native groups and especially the state of Alaska -- which would have netted half the royalties from oil development -- were aggressive.

"We have worked harder than anyone else," said Red Cavaney, president of the trade association American Petroleum Institute.

But the environmental community showed its resolve since they suffered defeat last year, demonstrating their persistence and dogged activism.

"Common sense prevailed," said Audubon president John Flicker.

And for that, we are all thankful this Earth Day.

Genevieve Roja is an associate editor at AlterNet.org.

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