Arctic Refuge on the Brink

Even some of the staunchest Big Oil Republicans are starting to lose the stomach for the battle to open the Arctic Refuge to oil drilling.
It's just one wildlife refuge in Alaska, but it seems to have Washington, D.C. tied in knots. A million and a half acres of wilderness in the far north, with a small puddle of oil beneath its surface – who would think a place like that could cause such turmoil in Washington?

President Bush went on the stump last week in Ohio, calling for the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development, stating it would "create thousands of jobs" and reduce oil imports. He said we need to drill there "for the sake of national security," to end our dependence on foreign oil. He called on Congress to pass an energy bill that includes the opening of the refuge.

But the U.S. Geological Survey has concluded there are probably only 3.2 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil in the Arctic Refuge. That amounts to just a six-month supply for the U.S. The price for that oil is the spoiling of a pristine wilderness that is a vital nursery for one of the largest remaining caribou herds and a home to polar bears, arctic foxes, white wolves and migratory birds.

Since coming to office, Bush has tried hard to get Congress to open the refuge and has been rebuffed more than once by the Senate. Yet with Republican victories last fall, he may now have the votes he needs – if he can avoid a filibuster. The filibuster is the Republican bete noir, the only thing that stands between them and total domination of all three branches of government. Senate Majority leader Bill Frist has threatened to remove the 200-year-old Senate rule that allows a minority to use endless debate to block voting. Doing away with the filibuster would mark a radical change in the Senate that's being dubbed "the nuclear option."

The Republican strategy for the Arctic Refuge turns on circumventing the filibuster. They are scheduling a vote for this Wednesday that will knock out any filibuster option.

Here's how they'll do it: First Bush includes $2.4 billion in hypothetical Arctic Refuge oil leasing revenues in his budget. Then Congress puts Arctic Refuge revenues in its budget resolutions, even though drilling in the refuge is still illegal. This is no problem because there is a later process called budget reconciliation where items in the budget resolution that need authorizing legislation can be addressed. The catch-22 is that, like the budget resolution process, the budget reconciliation process is filibuster-proof. The Arctic Refuge could then be opened up by a simple majority vote of 51 senators.

That's the theory. In practice it may turn out a little different. Some of the traditional allies like Big Oil have lost their appetite for the wildlife refuge. BP, Conoco-Phillips and Chevron-Texaco have all pulled out of Arctic Power, the industry group lobbying for access. The refuge's oil pool is too small and not worth the trouble.

Meanwhile, over in the House, budget committee chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) failed to include the Arctic Refuge revenue in his budget markup. Nussle said that including the language could derail his entire bill.

A letter from 13 House Republicans, led by Rep. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, asked Nussle to avoid the refuge and the ensuing debate. The letter stated: "While we welcome open debate on the issue of opening the refuge to drilling, we believe that the best vehicle for such debate is as part of a larger energy bill, not the budget or resolution."

Opening the Arctic Refuge is starting to look like real tarbaby even to Republicans. Congressman Joe Barton, the Texan who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is trying to keep the refuge out of his energy bill so it has a better chance of passing. The Arctic Refuge helped to kill last year's energy bill. Drilling in a wildlife refuge is just not popular with the American people, who would rather save the wilderness and invest money in more fuel-efficient cars.

Maybe that's why Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens says he is "clinically depressed" over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Stevens told reporters on Friday that if he fails to get the refuge this time he might just quit the Senate. Whether Senate Republicans can bring the House along now or later in a conference committee, or whether a budget resolution passes at all this year, are open questions. Still, Senate Republicans probably have the votes to proceed with their budget resolution strategy. When it comes to oil, fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

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Kelpie Wilson is the environment editor of TruthOut.org.