Drilling in Alaska looks like a nonstarter in the Senate. Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts has promised to filibuster the issue when the energy bill is reopened for debate, and the GOP probably won't muster enough votes to win. Are the greens celebrating? Not entirely. The ones at Public Citizen, the consumer advocacy nonprofit started by Ralph Nader, fear that the defeat of arctic drilling will actually leave conservatives sitting pretty in the briar patch.
Greens and Democrats have played the energy issue badly by allowing too much emphasis to be placed on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), some at Public Citizen maintain. Activists there have revived conspiracy theories claiming that ANWR was just a red herring, part of a GOP strategy to wrest environmental concessions from the Democrats while allowing them to claim a hollow victory. "I fear that the Senate Dems may have been bamboozled, painted into a corner where they say, 'Just don't drill ANWR,'" said Public Citizen policy analyst Hugh Jackson. "Then [President George W.] Bush [and the Republicans] may just say, OK, we won't drill, we'll just take everything else."
The oil and gas industries, which gave Republicans over $26 million in hard and soft money in the 2000 election cycle, certainly don't seem fiercely committed to ANWR drilling. As British Petroleum spokesman Ronald Chappell told The New York Times last month, "Big oil companies go where there are substantial fields and where they can produce oil economically. Does ANWR have that? Who knows?" Meanwhile Arctic Power, the major lobbying group for Alaskan drilling, complains that oil companies refuse to put much effort into pushing for ANWR, preferring to back the broader Senate bill. It's not hard to see why: The package dishes out billions of dollars in tax breaks and subsidies to the coal, oil, and nuclear industries.
Corporate handouts are only the beginning of what's wrong with the Senate bill. Renewable energy has been squeezed down to a paltry 4 percent to 5 percent from an already meager 8 percent, thanks to an amendment introduced by Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico. A proposal from Independent Senator James Jeffords of Vermont to boost renewables to 20 percent was summarily rejected. Any mention of raising the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards has been stripped. The bill also includes less-discussed outrages, such as weakening the Safe Drinking Water Act and doing away with the Public Utilities Holding Company Act without adding protections for consumers, which some Greens worry will leave the general public subject to the same unpredictable outages and price jumps that California saw in 2000.
The Sierra Club, the U.S Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), and the Natural Resources Defense Council denounced the Senate legislation after all hopes of increasing fuel-economy standards were officially quashed in March. In light of this, the Sierra Club's senior Washington representative, Debbie Boger, dismissed any hint that environmental groups focused too intently on ANWR, saying: "From the beginning it's been very clear that we have a number of priorities, not just protecting the Arctic." It just so happens, says Boger, that the Sierra Club's top three priorities -- fuel efficiency, renewables, and ANWR -- are inextricably intertwined. "We need to make sure our energy distribution systems are as secure as possible," Boger said, "and the way to do that is not to drill more, but to cut the amount of oil that we use."
Moreover, many influential Republicans do care about ANWR, environmentalists say. Alaskan gubernatorial candidate Senator Frank Murkowski is anxious to show constituents he's worth his weight in crude. And Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, suggests that far from being a red herring, ANWR could be a deal breaker for the administration. "This president is firmly committed to drilling in ANWR," Clapp said. "If you read what the White House is doing on this issue, it is without question the issue the administration cares the most about. The president has made it a test of his political manhood." He adds that George Bush Senior tried and failed to ram ANWR through Congress in 1992. "It's the domestic-oil production version of the family grudge against Iraq," Clapp said.
If that's the case, Bush might bank on Republican success in the November elections and refuse to sign a bill this spring that doesn't include ANWR. A GOP House and Senate could reconvene in the fall and go for the whole dirty, industry-friendly package, ANWR included.
Many environmentalists and green-friendly Democrats seem willing to take that risk. After all, the November reshuffling could just as easily play out in their favor. And given how far the current legislation falls from the mark, environmentally aware Democrats have the least to lose and the most to gain by letting the bill die in conference and gambling on a November upset in the House.