The Bush-Kerry tundra turf war

There's a Bush vs. Kerry rematch this week over the tundra turf of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

By Katharine Mieszkowski
Published March 15, 2005 11:15PM (EST)

There's a Bush vs. Kerry rematch this week over the tundra turf of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

At the request of the Bush administration, Republicans in the Senate have tacked a provision onto a budget resolution which would open the refuge to drilling. Since budget resolutions can't be filibustered, now the advocates of opening the refuge only need 51 votes to let oil companies into the still-pristine land of muskoxen and caribou.

Sen. John Kerry has joined Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., in a campaign to try to strip the Arctic drilling provision out of the budget resolution. The senators believe they have the votes to succeed in doing so, but the forces working to pry open the Arctic for drilling are just as confident that they have the votes to pull it off.

Meanwhile, the Bush adminstration's new line on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge isn't just that the country needs the relatively small amount of oil under it, but that the sprawling machinery for extracting it won't really trouble the wildlife living there. (Really.) Bush's interior secretary, Gale Norton, in an Op-Ed piece in Monday's New York Times argued that drilling technology has improved so much, that the caribou and muskox will barely notice it at all.

A scolding from the Times editorial board casts a shadow on Norton's sunny notion: "Where Ms. Norton sees undisturbed tundra, [environmentalists] see hundreds of miles of pipelines, roads and drilling platforms, which would fragment wildlife habitats and corrupt a wilderness that, according to recent polls, a majority of Americans wish to leave undisturbed. We have expressed such reservations ourselves. But what troubles us most about President Bush's fixation on drilling is what it says about the shallowness of his energy policy."

Whatever the cost to wildlife, the Times says, the limited amount of oil there wouldn't do much to fix our energy problems, adding: "Any number of modest efficiencies could achieve the same result without threatening the refuge. Simply closing the so-called S.U.V. loophole -- making light trucks as efficient overall as ordinary cars -- would save a million barrels a day. Increasing fuel-economy standards for cars by about 50 percent, to 40 miles per gallon, a perfectly reasonable expectation, would save 2.5 million barrels a day."

But if you think that Bush administration and the Republican controlled Congress is likely to go for either of those ideas, we've got a caribou-friendly drilling platform to sell you.

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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