A debate is raging on Capitol Hill whether to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration and drilling. Republicans are trying to push the plan through the Senate by attaching it as an amendment to unrelated legislation before Congress. Senate Democrats, who are largely opposed to drilling, have stepped up efforts to protect the refuge from development.
In the partisan battle over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Senate Democrats brought a new weapon to Capitol Hill last week - Hollywood actor Robert Redford - an avid environmentalist and opponent of oil drilling in the refuge. Speaking to a group of senators, staffers and reporters he said he wanted to remind the Bush Administration it was a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, who set aside the arctic territory forty years ago.
"And protecting important safe places is a core value of American life. And so therefore the decisions that are made right now regarding this pristine property, and whether or not it should be drilled into, and the argument I think is very strong against it because it will clearly refute what is being stated as a cause," he said.
Advocates of drilling say that cause is energy security, especially in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the United States. Kim Duke with Arctic Power, a pro-drilling lobby group, says oil from the refuge would lessen U.S. dependency on foreign imports and create jobs.
"Oil is not a renewable resource and everyone needs to be looking at a way to reduce our dependence on it, but that won't happen over night. In the meantime we need to be producing domestically what we can and this is an area that is one of the best bets to do that," she said.
Adam Kolton, Arctic Campaign Director of the Alaska Wilderness League, disagrees. He says the challenge facing the United States, which consumes 25 percent of the world's oil reserves, is to move aggressively toward conservation of resources.
"For example, if we raised the fuel efficiency of cars and light trucks by just three miles per gallon we could save more than one million barrels of oil a day according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That is five times what we are likely to get out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," Mr. Kolton explained.
Even if drilling were approved, oil from the refuge would not be available for ten years. Opponents say it would harm the caribou and polar bear in the region. But Kim Duke with Arctic Power says 95 percent of the North Slope of Alaska, where the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is located, has been open to oil drilling for 30 years with little impact on habitat and wildlife.
"And there have been numerous ongoing studies of polar bear, of the caribou, the central arctic herd has increased seven-fold, even greater since development has occurred there showing that oil development has not negatively affected the caribou, their migration, their birthrates," she said.
But Senator Joseph Leiberman and other Democratic senators are not buying these arguments. Senator Leiberman says drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is bad environmental policy, bad energy policy and bad for the American soul.
"What kind of future do we want our children and grandchildren to have in America? I think one of the values that rises in the public's priority is the extraordinary natural gifts we've been given in the wild and untouched places of America. And there's none that meets those characteristics and descriptions more than the Arctic Refuge," he said.
Mr. Leiberman promises to filibuster - a tactic used to block legislation should Senate Republicans attempt to attach an amendment that would open the reserve to oil drilling to unrelated legislation. In August the House passed an energy bill that permits drilling. A Senate energy bill and more debate on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is expected early next year.