The ANWR Debate
An ANWR defeat would deliver a major blow to the concept of wilderness protection and environmental leaders know it. Backs against the wall, green lobbyists are planning to fight, and one group at the forefront will be the D.C.-based League of Conservation Voters. Long feared by legislators for its annual environmental scorecard, the organization eschews tree-hugger grandstanding for a laser focus on electing pro-environment candidates. Outside talked to League president Deb Callahan about how to keep the drills idle.
OUTSIDE: Is the battle already lost?
CALLAHAN: No. Since Election Day, that's been the classic question coming from reporters. For the drilling advocates, it's the best possible message they can implant in people's minds: "Hey, folks, you've lost, give it up. We have the votes." We're not going to know how the votes will fall until we actually start voting.
O: So what's the game plan?
C: We'll make ANWR symbolic of the Bush administration's evisceration of our nation's environmental laws. One of the things you can say to the public is, "Well, 95 percent of Alaska's North Slope is already open to some kind of resource extraction. And the president is demanding that we open a lot more in the remaining 5 percent. Shouldn't we leave some places pristine?" The other side is saying, "OK, we won the election; now we have a mandate for this administration's environmental policies." Excuse me? You can't ignore an issue during an election, then claim you have a mandate.
O: But if Bush ignored the environment and won, can't Congress take that to mean that voters don't care?
C: The Republicans could have a very difficult time in 2006. When it's not a presidential-election year, legislators have to run on their own records. We're counting on the fact that they will have to go home and really explain their voting. And if we can do a good job of making the Arctic a litmus test of environmentalism, we can go to their districts and talk about it. Environmental groups contacted voters as frequently as the NRA did last year. We didn't develop these lists and find all these new volunteers only to lose them. We're going to put them on the front lines.
O: What's the heart of your argument?
C: Their side is going to say that weaning the U.S. off foreign oil is a national-security issue and therefore we need to increase our domestic sources and drill in ANWR. We're going to say, Yes, we should wean ourselves from foreign oil. But we want to do it in a way that makes sense for the present and the future. That means fuel-efficiency standards and other energy choices.
O: Aren't Republicans banking on the fact that, in the context of war in Iraq and economic uncertainty, ANWR won't generate much public interest?
C: If this were a brand-new issue, it would seem very esoteric. But it's not. The public is aware of the situation, and newspapers are going to be hungry to cover the battlethey are expecting really dramatic things to happen. Remember the Gary Snyder poem about drawing the line? This is where we draw the line.
O: What would it mean to lose?
C: We are never going to give up on the Arctic. And they're not going to drop the drill bits for a while, even after the next several votes. It's astonishing what you can do in Washington, D.C., if you are committed and focused. You can block and tackle for a very long time. We need to hang on until 2006.