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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The ANWR Opinion Machine

Air Date: Week of

A plush polar bear gift from The Defenders of Wildlife (Photo courtesy of: Defenders of Wildlife)

No one's made a penny drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But the decades-long debate over the Refuge's fate has produced a gusher of money for pollsters, consultants, advertisers and activists in Washington. Living on Earth's Jeff Young looks at who's striking it rich in one of the nation's most enduring environmental fights.


CURWOOD: It’s Living On Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. The U.S. House of Representatives has voted, yet again, to open part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. It’s the tenth time the House has approved drilling in the refuge. What the Senate will do with the bill is less certain. One thing is certain though: a small army of lobbyists, consultants, direct mailers, advertisers and activists will be on hand to try to sway votes. After decades of debate, no one has made a penny drilling for oil in the Arctic refuge but in Washington D.C. it’s already a gusher. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young has a look at the cottage industry that’s grown up around one of the country’s most enduring environmental conflicts.

HOUSE SPEAKER: …under the rule, the yeas and nays are ordered. Members will record their votes by electronic device (GAVEL SLAM!).

YOUNG: Congress has voted on drilling in the Arctic refuge, or ANWR, as it’s known here, so many times now, it seems the only thing to add to the debate is why they seem to do it every year. California Republican Representative Devin Nunes thinks he knows why.

A plush polar bear gift from The Defenders of Wildlife (Photo courtesy of: Defenders of Wildlife)

NUNES: One of the reasons this continues to be used as propaganda by the environmental community is because it’s their number one source of fundraising throughout the country to use in political campaigns.

YOUNG: The proof, Nunes says, is in the many email alerts and postcards telling drilling opponents to call congress and send money. The Defenders of Wildlife will even send you a plush toy polar bear. It’s not clear how much cash stuffed polar bears bring in. Defenders of Wildlife declined to comment. Their tax records show $23 million dollars in direct contributions last year. So, are environmental groups just milking a cash cow here?

BOSSO: No. I think to argue that ANWR is the number one fundraiser for the environmental community is way overstating things.

YOUNG: That’s Chris Bosso, a Tufts University Political science professor and author of the book, "Environment, Inc." Bosso says it’s true; many environmental groups seek support for the Arctic fight. But if they were hyping the issue purely to make money, as Congressman Nunes charges, they would quickly lose the most valuable thing they have, the trust of their donating members.

BOSSO: These organizations are, at the end of the day, responsive to their donors. Because if they don’t do what the donors want, you can go somewhere else, you can give to another organization. So organizations are very careful about the currency of the realm. The currency of the realm is their reputation as legitimate advocates for a cause. And if you screw up that legitimacy, you have big trouble.

YOUNG: Bosso says the only groups that can raise funds on the Arctic issue are the ones with long records in protecting wildlife and wilderness and changing energy policy—the issues at the heart of the Arctic drilling debate. Pete Rafle is a spokesperson for The Wilderness society.

RAFLE: The arctic national wildlife refuge is in the DNA of the wilderness society.

YOUNG: Rafle says the wilderness society’s interest in protecting the Alaskan wilds dates to the 1930s. The group got $26 million in direct contributions last year. But Rafle says money raised for the arctic refuge goes to that effort.

RAFLE: Well, no one is getting rich trying to protect the arctic refuge. Every dollar coming in gets spent trying to protect this place. And we’d like nothing better than to move on to other issues but as long as it comes up in congress, we’re going to have to raise and spend money to protect it.

YOUNG: Rafle offers few specifics on how that money is spent. Tax records show the Wilderness Society gave direct mail company SMS Direct hundreds of thousands of dollars to print up things like post card appeals to protect the arctic. Among SMS Direct’s other clients is the Republican National Committee, which wants to drill in the Arctic. And there’s a hint as to who’s really found a gusher in the arctic debate: the direct mailers, pollsters and consultants who make up the Washington public opinion machine, some of them working both sides of the argument.

KRUMHOLZ: It’s no secret that consultants that have specialized in this have made a lot of money, especially in recent years.

YOUNG: That’s Shiela Krumholz, with the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit that tracks money in Washington. Krumholz says the real money in the arctic debate is with those who want to drill.

KRUMHOLZ: Oil and gas has spent millions of dollars, 200 million since 1989, on campaign contributions. 46 million just in last year on lobbying, and the environmental groups really can’t hold a candle to that.

YOUNG: The two main groups advocating drilling in the refuge are Arctic Power and the Arctic Regional Slope Corporation. Krumholz says the member companies of those groups gave 10 million in campaign cash in five years. Add up the campaign spending by environmental groups, and it’s about 3% of that. Of course, not all the money the oil industry spends in Washington is just about arctic drilling—the industry has a lot on its plate. But Krumholz says the bigger the money, the greater the access.

KRUMHOLZ: That money opens up doors in congress, so this is a very useful tool to have in their tool kit as they are lobbying on a whole host of issues, among them ANWR.

YOUNG: The latest to tap into that money is a public relations firm based in Oregon called Pac West. The firm won a controversial 3 million dollar no-bid contract from the state of Alaska to push for Arctic drilling. Tom Randall is a consultant on the Pac West PR team, using a mix of lobbying, advertising and what he calls grass roots campaigning.

RANDALL: Well, grass roots are very effective. We do grassroots political
Campaigns. Every campaign for president has a grass roots component; because that’s one of the ways you can reach people.

YOUNG: Randall says the grass roots part is called ‘Americans for American Energy,’ which generates pro-drilling letters to congress and editors of local papers. Randall says Americans for American Energy is, essentially, one worker paid by Pac West.


YOUNG: Is it really grass roots, though? I mean if a PR firm gets 3 million dollars to carry out a campaign, that’s not what I think most people think of when they hear grass roots.

RANDALL: It’s grass roots if it gets a grassroots response, if other people in the grassroots join in, and that effort is multiplied, then you have a grassroots movement.

YOUNG: Randall says he thinks this approach will work. He predicts a Senate vote to drill the Arctic Refuge by the end of this session. If he’s right, it could be bad news for those striking it rich on the ANWR debate. Again, political money tracker Krumholz.

KRUMHOLZ: It’ll be a bittersweet victory for those consultants, should ANWR pass because they will no longer be able to reap the rewards that they have been in the last few years.

YOUNG: For Living On Earth, I’m Jeff Young, in Washington.



Center for Responsive Politics report on Arctic Drilling money:

Americans for American Energy

Center for Media and Democracy’s Sourcewatch report on the PR firm PAC/WEST

Website for lobbying group Arctic Power

The Wilderness Society arctic drilling campaign


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