The proposal to allow oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), which the Senate voted down on Thursday, brought out overheated rhetoric from public officials and pundits on both sides. Each did their best to frame the issue advantageously: Opponents charged it was big oil vs. the environment, and supporters suggested it was volatile OPEC goons vs. national security and freedom.
Both sides have treated the facts in this debate cavalierly. As journalists Seth Borenstein and James Kuhnhenn point out, environmentalists have often overstated their claims about the potential damage to caribou herds, while some supporters of drilling have exaggerated the amount of oil in the refuge. When the proposal finally came under consideration in the Senate this week (the House approved the proposal last August), the spin reached a new level as each side tried to tie its viewpoint to everything from the war on terrorism to the Bush administration's energy task force.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, took on opponents of drilling with a rare attempt at direct intimidation on the Senate floor. Attacking the idea that the Wildlife Refuge is wilderness, he claimed on Tuesday that "anyone who comes to the floor and says this is wilderness is a liar -- a liar. Anyone who tries to pretend that somehow or another we are violating the law is a liar. If it was back in the old days, I would challenge them to a duel."
Stevens continued: "This area, the ANWR Coastal Plain, is not wilderness" because "it is hell in the wintertime -- 60 below." As Stevens should know, however, temperature has nothing to do with the definition of wilderness. He's twisting the meaning of the term -- normally, "a place without people" -- to crudely reframe the debate using nothing more than bluster.
Other proponents of the drilling plan tried to link their side of the fight to the war on terrorism by intentionally blurring the timeline so that the oil exploration looked as though it could have an immediate impact. Most experts (including an Exxon executive who testified before Congress) calculate that it would take six to 10 years to develop ANWR's oil reserves. Yet Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Tex., claimed on CNN's "Crossfire" last Tuesday that "the idea that we would sit here and let countries in the Middle East decide if our economy is going to be stable, if we are going to be able to prosecute this war on terrorism, is outrageous."
Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, picked up the theme on the Senate floor, suggesting on Wednesday that "the risk [to our national security] is very real. The risk may go beyond the risk associated with just a political view of this issue ... I would like to think every member of this body values not only the president but his office to see what is in the best interest of our country, our nation and our national security." Both Murkowski and Hutchison are clearly attempting to associate the current war on terrorism with oil drilling in the ANWR. But while national security may be a valid concern several years down the line, to make the claim that oil from the refuge will have an immediate impact is disingenuous.
Not to be outdone, opponents of drilling have indulged in cheap shots of their own. Paul Begala attacked drilling supporter Hutchison on "Crossfire" on Tuesday with the question, "It seems to me the only rationale for a party for drilling in Alaska but against fuel efficiency is that you are following what big oil wants, aren't you?" Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., recycled the same theme on Wednesday: "[ANWR] is the centerpiece of their policy because the people who wrote the policy, the special interest groups that sat down and crafted the policy, have another agenda. It isn't energy security; it isn't energy independence. It is about profitability."
None of this deals with whether drilling in the ANWR is actually sound policy -- support for drilling does not by itself invalidate Republican arguments about national security or energy independence. The opponents' argument is just a way of discrediting drilling by association. That tactic is used by drilling proponents, too. Stevens suggested Wednesday that "a real problem is the people who really take advantage of the nation when we are evenly divided, the minority of the population -- 2 percent -- which represents these radical environmentalists."
With the proposal off the table for the moment -- it may reappear as the energy bill moves to a House-Senate conference committee -- the debate will perhaps simmer down enough to allow reasonable consideration of the issue. Then again, maybe we'll simply see another round of distorted facts and challenges to face off at 20 paces.