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A version of the following article appeared in the Hill Times

The Commons Report: It's the last chance to save the Arctic Refuge

By Elizabeth May
June 27, 2005

The most dangerous of environmental dooms-saying is the self-fulfilling prophecy. There is nothing as likely to come true as environmentalists predicting defeat. Hope is the best antidote to despair. And then, the facts usually help.

A case in point is the fate of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. If the American environmental movement has a Holy Grail, this is it. The Alaskan side of an eco-system that is protected on the Yukon side of the border by Kluane National Park is known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The name suggests a level of protection that is illusory. The legendary porcupine caribou herds ranging between Yukon and Alaska are the North American equivalent of the wildebeasts of Serengeti. The most critical area of the refuge is the coastal plain, known as the 10-02 lands. The porcupine caribou make their way to the coastal plain where the vegetation is perfect for the mothers and young calves. It may be a small area of the caribou's total range, but it is the essential to their survival. For more than two decades, the oil and gas industry has had licences to drill for oil and gas in the calving grounds of the Arctic Refuge. They have been held off by a combination of Canadian pressure and environmental backbone in the U.S. Congress.

The Canadian federal government has stood strongly in favour of protection of the Arctic Refuge for decades. And Canada has a treaty with the U.S. that requires consultation before any industrial activity can move in. Canada's interests are clear and reflect the advice of Mr. Justice Thomas Berger back in the days of the famous inquiry. The Gwich'n people have a culture and traditional way of life that is integrally woven with the ways of the caribou. As the Gwich'n say, "the caribou are our life."

Within the ranks of the Liberal caucus, particular credit must go to Larry Bagnell (Yukon), who has steadfastly worked to press Washington on this issue. Canada's Embassy in Washington has traditionally played a major role in making Canadian concerns heard.

The Congress has, until recently, always voted to defeat drilling and protect the Refuge. Staunch conservationists on both sides of the House and particularly in the Senate have been the bulwarks that keep the drill bits out of the caribou maternity ward. But the Bush administration has launched a relentless effort to break the Senate opposition. As is the custom in the U.S. Congress, omnibus bills attract pork-barrel projects to secure votes for unpopular measures. Earlier this year, for the first time ever, the Senate passed a bill that opened the way to drilling.

The amount of oil and gas below the pristine wilderness is small. It is estimated to be enough to supply six months worth of supply for U.S. energy needs. It could be completely offset, far more cheaply, by enforcing speed limits on U.S. highways. Of the companies with an interest, British Petroleum has not even confirmed it would go into the 10-02 lands even if it were opened. Of course, the perennial environmental bad-boy of the oil patch, Exxon, is ready to roll. But with so little oil, why bother?

As much as the Arctic Refuge matters to environmentalists on both sides of the border, it has similar symbolic importance for the pro-development forces. If the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge can be opened to drilling, then nothing is sacred. It will be like driving a stake through the heart of conservation efforts throughout North America. That is why Bush wants the Refuge. And that is why pessimism is so dangerous. Despite a lot of news coverage that has created the impression that the decisive vote has been taken, in fact, it lies ahead.

In mid-September, the U.S. Senate will vote on the Budget Reconciliation Bill. If that bill is defeated, the Refuge will once again be off-limits to the oil and gas industry. And there is a good chance that that bill will be defeated. The political landscape has changed since the last vote. Bush has lost three votes in a row that actually mattered to his agenda: that for stem-cell research, to protect minority rights to filibuster, and to approve Bush's manifestly unsuitable choice for U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. After November's election victory, Bush claimed to have "political capital" that he planned to spend. At the moment, he is looking a little out of pocket.

Senators McCain and Leiberman are coming on strong for measures to reduce greenhouse gases, while the Bush White House's clumsy efforts to censor climate science have been exposed in The New York Times. Drilling in the Arctic Refuge is not disconnected from Bush's energy agenda; it is intrinsically linked.

Canada must do more to speak out for the Arctic Refuge. While Bush may not listen, or care, there are many in the Senate, those on the fence, for whom awareness of Canada's strong position is critical. In the last few months, Prime Minister Paul Martin and his new Ambassadorial pick, Frank McKenna, have been doing wonderful work to stop the Devils Lake project in North Dakota. We cannot risk only tackling one transboundary environmental issue at a time. It is the 11th hour for the Arctic Refuge. Believing it can be saved, dispelling the doom-sayers is the first step. The next can be taken by Prime Minister Paul Martin when he meets with U.S. President Bush at the G8 Summit.

Elizabeth May is executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada.


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