A version of the following article appeared in the Hill Times
The Commons Report: It's the last chance to save the Arctic
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
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
Elizabeth May is executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada.
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