The recent Senate vote is a blow to the environmental community, but the legislative debate for ANWR isn't over just yet. Host Steve Curwood talks with Melinda Pierce, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, and Richard Glenn, an Alaska native who supports Arctic drilling in his community.
CURWOOD: Joining me now are two people who were in the Senate chamber, holding their breath as the votes on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge were being tallied. The Sierra Club's Melinda Pierce has been lobbying against opening ANWR for 15 years. Richard Glen is vice president of the pro-drilling Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. And, hello to both of you.
PIERCE: Hey, there.
CURWOOD: Now, let's start with Ms. Pierce. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups have invested a lot of time and money into this campaign. In your view, what went wrong here?
PIERCE: Well, I'll tell you what, nothing went wrong in terms of the mobilization of Sierra Club members and, truly, the American public. I mean, this was a case of good, old-fashioned organizing. And, given the makeup of the United States Senate, 55/45 in terms of the division between Republicans and Democrats, frankly, I think the vote was a strong vote.
CURWOOD: But it wasn't enough.
PIERCE: Certainly wasn't enough; we need two more votes and I think, ultimately, trying to advance Arctic drilling through the budget process is objectionable and it's not going to succeed.
CURWOOD: Now, what about claims that the oil can be extracted from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with minimal disruption to the environment? I'm thinking of what Interior Secretary Gale Norton said recently, that, look, the footprint of the equipment and the facilities necessary to get to this oil is no more than 2,000 acres and in a reserve, what, roughly the size of South Carolina, doesn't sound like very much.
PIERCE: Well, I'd like to believe that the oil industry can do this in an environmentally sensitive way and they are making advances. But, frankly, you can't get away from the fact that oil drilling is a messy business and if you look at the history of oil development on the North Slope in Prudhoe Bay, it's a history of air pollution, of water pollution. They average 400 spills a year, self-reported. They just can't do it right, yet.
CURWOOD: Mr. Glen?
CURWOOD: How do you produce oil in ANWR without damaging it?
GLEN: Well, first off, you begin with an exploration program that leaves no tracks on the landscape that's done in winter, over snow cover, with low-pressure vehicles that make vibrations and don't even touch the ground surface. And then, if an exploration program warrants further study, a drilling program would ensue and the drilling is done again in winter from an ice-supported pad, a layer of ice that separates the drill rig infrastructure from the ground. And when the drilling for these exploratory wells is done, everything is cut and removed and the drill rig is gone and you don't see a trace of either the exploration or the drilling.
CURWOOD: Some might say that your organization favors drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge because of the financial interest that you might have there. How much would this be worth to your community if drilling were to proceed?
GLEN: It's in the millions. It's hugely important. What has happened is our home-rule government has developed a tax base by which it has created local schools, health clinics, roads, reliable power--things that much of the rest of the country takes for granted.
CURWOOD: How do you think your community will change with drilling?
GLEN: Well, you see, there already is Arctic drilling and so our communities have been familiar with drilling now for 30 years. We try to walk in two worlds, really. We try to keep our language and our traditions alive. We rely on fish and the caribou and the marine mammals of our region for food. Our people are kind of stitched into the fabric of the land. What's changed is modern conveniences allow us to travel safer; people use snow machines and GPS and VHF radios rather than tools that pre-date steel and electronics. And, we're faced with, over the years...we, like many other Northern communities, are faced with suicide and substance abuse and disease. So, there's a plus and minus with cultural change, just like there is everywhere else.
CURWOOD: Melinda Pierce, to what extent is this a done deal? I mean, how likely is it that drilling in ANWR will, in fact, become law this time around?
PIERCE: Well, I don't think that drilling rigs are going to be rolling into the Arctic Refuge. They have won a small victory, but the battle is far from over. It's hard to pass a budget and by adding Arctic drilling to it, in a way that limits debate and amendment, I think it throws very much in question whether they can pass an overall budget.
CURWOOD: I want to ask both of you, if you have questions for each other. First, Richard Glen, do you have any questions for Melinda Pierce?
GLEN: Well, I think it's my understanding that there are other wildlife refuges in this country that are producing oil and gas and they're doing it safely. Why can't the Sierra Club condone such a practice in a small portion of the coastal plain?
PIERCE: Because we believe that there are some places that are too special to open to development, that there are some places that we should leave as a wilderness area.
GLEN: But, the coastal plain is not a wilderness. It has landing strips, radar facilities, our people live there. So, to type it as a pristine, uninhabited wilderness is not accurate.
PIERCE: You know, when I have been there, there are no roads; there is not a manmade development that I have ever seen. This is 1.5 million acres that is presently protected as wilderness status which means no roads, no development. It is as vast and pristine an area as there is in the United States, as there is in the world.
GLEN: Well, the fact that you visited the coastal plain and were unable to see any infrastructure is the argument that I've been trying to make, that the region is big; there is room and there is room. You can visit many places even in the coastal plain and not see any sign of infrastructure, but the infrastructure is there. That's an indication of the size and magnitude that most people have failed to realize.
CURWOOD: Melinda Pierce, do you have any questions for Mr. Glen?
PIERCE: Yeah, indeed. Actually, during the course of this debate, there were a number of representatives from the Inupiak communities that came down to talk about the growing opposition to drilling because these communities like Nuiqsut and Kaktovik have seen the negative health effects that gas flaring and the development has had. What do you say to those members of the community that have traveled to DC to talk about their growing opposition to oil drilling?
GLEN: Well, there is a diversity of opinion on every issue. But, the majority of our people are in support. And, I spoke with the president of the native village of Kaktovik and he told me that the majority of his tribal members are in support. Of course, our Barrow leadership is in support; our regional corporation is in support. So, we have by no sense lockstep unity but we do have majority. We tolerate all, this is a kind of debate and discussion that we encourage but we have consensus, as well.
CURWOOD: Hey, it sounds like we're at the United States Senate, huh?
CURWOOD: I want to thank both of you for taking this time with me, today. Melinda Pierce is the senior Washington representative for the Sierra Club and Richard Glen is vice president of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which represents the business interests of the Alaskan Inupiats in Barrow, Alaska. Both of you, thank you so much for taking this time with me today.
PIERCE: Thank you, Steve.
GLEN: Thank you very much.
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