Two Diverse Areas, Same Debate

The windswept tundra of far northeast Alaska is home, at least part of the year, to animals such as the caribou, polar bear, musk ox and 135 species of migratory birds.

It’s an ecosystem richly diverse despite the muted tones that life takes on because of the harsh climate. That climate has made the area largely inaccessible to humans and left the tundra nearly as pristine as any place on earth.

Northeast Alaska – the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, more specifically – is thousands of miles away and has almost no physical similarity with the warm, watery eastern Gulf of Mexico at Florida’s back door.

Little except the likelihood that oil and gas lie below ground in both places.

As the debate about oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge again churns to life in Washington, it is renewing concerns among conservationists that there’s more at stake than pristine tundra and the calving grounds of caribou.

Kristen Cummings, senior Alaska lands advocate for the National Wildlife Federation, is among those who also think opening the 1.5-million-acre portion of the Arctic Refuge to oil drilling will set a precedent.

“The message is clear and is backed up by quotes from oil company executives and people like (House Majority Leader) Tom DeLay,” Cummings said. “The Arctic is symbolic. It’s part of a larger plan. It’s a domino game that will lead to drilling in the Rocky Mountains, off the California coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the idea that environmentally sensitive habitat is not a reason for restraint.”

At risk in the Gulf, environmentalists say, are Florida’s beaches, fishing grounds and a number of threatened and endangered species, including sea turtles and whales and by default the state’s $51 billion tourism industry.

President Bush has, over the past few years, included revenues from Arctic Refuge oil leases in his budget.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the leasing program would net roughly $2 billion over the 2007-09 period.

In addition to the revenue projections in the president’s 2006 budget, pro-drilling factions are expected to circumvent the normal Senate process by attaching drilling in the Arctic to the federal budget resolution.

The budget isn’t subject to filibuster, a long-standing senatorial procedure for dealing with controversy, and that would allow drilling opponents a better shot at winning.

Environmental groups say pro-drilling Republicans tipped their hand about the bigger plan that includes the Gulf in September 2003. That’s when DeLay, R-Texas, said in a closed-door session with other Republicans that drilling in the refuge is a first step.

“It’s about the precedent,” DeLay told assembled Republican leaders, according to the congressional insider news journal Roll Call. At the time, DeLay also made several references to the symbolism involved in opening the refuge to drilling.

Supporting DeLay’s efforts are those of Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who has long advocated drilling in the refuge and other environmentally sensitive areas that until now have been closed to drilling.

In December, Domenici asked Department of Interior Secretary Gale Norton to seek comments on opening closed areas and sites under drilling moratoria, such as the eastern Gulf.

The moratorium against drilling in the eastern Gulf except for a small area directly south of the Alabama-Florida line expires in 2007. Parties on both sides of the drilling debate are readying now for the fight over the next five-year period _ 2007 to 2012.

Florida’s former Sen. Bob Graham and current Sen. Bill Nelson both have long opposed drilling in pristine areas, whether near or distant. Freshman GOP Sen. Mel Martinez has said he will support whatever the Alaska delegation wants.

“More than 75 percent of Alaskans support drilling in (the Arctic Refuge) as does the entire Alaska delegation, and we’re going to defer to their judgment,” Martinez spokeswoman Kerry Feehery said.

But Cummings said a Martinez vote for drilling in Alaska will compromise his ability to fight drilling off the Florida coast, since both are considered environmentally sensitive. And she is quick to point out that the land in question doesn’t belong solely to Alaskans.

“We’re talking about federal public lands,” she said. “It’s like a national park. The whole country has a right to have a voice in this.”

(Contact Cathy Zollo of the Naples Daily News in Florida at