After 40 years of fighting about it, Congress is on the verge of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development. The U.S. House passed an ANWR measure Tuesday in its tax bill. The Senate is likely to pass it shortly. Then the bill goes back to the House for one more vote Wednesday before heading to the president for his signature. Assuming all goes as expected, this is a major win for Alaska’s congressional delegation, and a big loss to environmental groups. Conservationists were able to defeat all previous ANWR drilling bills. Why were they powerless to stop this one?
Thousands of protesters rallied Dec. 6 on the north side of the Capitol grounds. But ignore that huge crowd, because it has nothing to do with the Arctic Refuge. That was about immigration.
If you walked over to the west side of the Capitol grounds, to the National Mall that day, you’d find a much smaller group of activists calling for the preservation of the Arctic Refuge. The event was billed as a prayer vigil.
“We just want to continue to have our food security,” Bernadette Demientieff, director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, told the gathering. “To have healthy land. To have healthy animals to hunt.”
Few reporters were watching. The mood was somber. It’s a stunning reversal of fortunes for environmentalists. They won so many times on the ANWR, some years they seemed almost invincible.
To see how hard it used to be to convince Congress to allow drilling in the refuge, look at 2005. That year, the political climate seemed perfect for oil development. For the first time, average gas prices soared above $2 gallon. America was importing more petroleum than ever. And U.S. troops were fighting in Iraq, a war many said was about oil. So the argument that America needed ANWR’s oil had some pull.
And yet, there was Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, proclaiming Dec. 21, 2005, “the saddest day of my life.”
Stevens was crushed when he didn’t have the votes to keep ANWR in a defense spending bill. He had attached billions of dollars to the drilling measure to win votes. Billions to help victims of Hurricane Katrina, to fortify the borders, to help low-income families. In a dramatic, bitter speech on the Senate floor, Stevens told his colleagues he had funneled money so elaborately, the feat could never be repeated.
“To take out of the bill all of this money that we worked so hard to find a way to justify it,” Stevens fumed. “We took future revenues coming into the treasury, held them in the treasury and earmarked them for specific purposes when arrived.”
Stevens had that much sway over the federal budget, and it wasn’t enough.
When conservation groups won the 2005 round on the refuge, the Sierra Club’s Melinda Pierce suggested that might be the end.
“If Stevens failed to get his pet project done, with all the stars aligned – high gas prices, war in Iraq, Republican control of all bodies of Congress – it’s going to be hard for him to get it done ever,” Pierce said.
Fast-forward 12 years. Pierce is still at the Sierra Club, only now she’s losing on ANWR. Pierce said this year the refuge fight is overshadowed by other controversies, including the specifics of the tax changes.
“The traditional grassroots power that we have always been able to mobilize really may not be able to break through that huge amount of money and lobbying interest that’s happening,” Pierce said.
Also, there are fewer members of Congress that environmental groups can direct that power to, fewer moderate Republicans.
At the League of Conservation Voters, Tiernan Sittenfeld said when she started working in Washington in 2000, the House had 30 or 40 Republicans who might vote with the Democrats on environmental issues. She said their insistence is the reason Arctic drilling didn’t slide through on a fast-track budget reconciliation bill in 2005. If it had gone through the House that way, Stevens could have passed it in the Senate with just 50 votes, which he had, instead of 60, which he did not.
“A lot of those Republicans either were retired or they were defeated by Democrats in 2006 and 2008,” Sittenfeld said. “Many of those Democrats were then defeated by Tea Party Republicans in 2010. So it is a more polarized time now for sure, when it comes to environmental issues.”
This time, 11 House Republicans wrote a letter asking for ANWR to be removed from the tax bill, but six voted for the bill anyway.
Retired lobbyist Roger Herrera doesn’t know why ANWR is passing now, and so quietly.
“The frustrations over the last 20 or 30 years, political frustrations, with trying to open the coastal plain have been pretty extreme (at) times,” Herrera said.
Herrera worked to open the refuge for most of his career, first for BP, then as director of Arctic Power, an ANWR-drilling lobby that was active for more than two decades. The state of Alaska spent about $12 million on Arctic Power over the years, to fight for votes in Congress. The group has been dormant for a few years, but ANWR is passing anyway. Herrera wonders if environmental groups just quit trying so hard.
“In a way, one doesn’t mind how it happens,” Herrera said.
Environmental groups insist they’ve given it all they’ve got. Sittenfeld said League of Conservation Voters planned to work the Hill to the last minute. Even if the bill is signed into law, environmentalists say they’ll fight on with lawsuits, pressure on oil companies or maybe, Sittenfeld said, a new bill in Congress.