Vuntut Gwitchin work to protect ANWR … again

The ANWR issue is the same, but the stakes have changed. Almost a year has passed since the US Senate first voted 51-49 in favour of a budget that…

The ANWR issue is the same, but the stakes have changed.

Almost a year has passed since the US Senate first voted 51-49 in favour of a budget that included language to allow drilling for oil in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The budget was batted back and forth between the US Senate and the House of Representatives. Amendments were made. Ultimately, ANWR was excluded.

Now, it’s back in play again.

Thursday, the US Senate voted 51-49 once again in favour of a 2007 budget laced with words to allow drilling in ANWR, breathing new life into the development-preservation debate.

“One of the senators said it’s like the movie Groundhog Day, when the same thing keeps happening year after year after year, dealing with the same issue,” said Joe Linklater, Vuntut Gwitchin chief.

His people subsist on the Porcupine caribou herd that migrates in and out of ANWR and births its calves on the targeted plain.

“Basically, the stage we are at now is that the Senate has made its decision to pass its version of the budget,” Linklater said Tuesday.

“There have to be different votes on the budget in terms of getting it to the president’s desk, and the president makes the final decision on whether he wants to accept it or veto it.”

However, the stakes are higher this time.

“What may be different is that this is the president’s last term,” said Linklater, who visited Washington DC to lobby against ANWR drilling before the recent Senate vote.

Many in Congress and in the Republican Party are losing confidence in the Iraq war and with George W. Bush, especially following his handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans last fall, noted Linklater.

“(Bush) was able to apply a lot more pressure in his first term.

“In this term, he can’t apply the pressure to the same extent, so those senators who were sitting on the fence now have a little more room to pay attention to their constituents, the majority of whom support protection of (ANWR).”

Many senators also face re-election in the fall, and are more likely to oppose Bush, he added.

“This whole Arctic refuge issue is a legacy issue, if you stood up and fought for protection of the refuge or you stood up and fought hard for development of the refuge.

“These days, the environmental movement is very strong because people are seeing their environment destroyed around them, and they don’t want that to happen anymore.”

However, several key senators who have supported protection of ANWR in the past changed their votes last week.

Three Republican senators who normally oppose ANWR drilling — Olympia Snowe, John McCain and Gordon Smith — voted in favour of the budget.

Mary Landrieu was the only Democrat to vote with them, said Yukon MP Larry Bagnell.

“It was especially disappointing that potential presidential candidate Senator McCain, who came to the Yukon and I had toured in my car, voted for this budget resolution,” Bagnell said in an interview.

“He had heard my impassioned speech against drilling at the Whitehorse banquet.”

The vote swings are strange, considering the anticipated $4 billion from ANWR oil won’t do much to reduce more than $8 trillion the US owes in national debt, said Linklater.

Recently, the largest oil spill in the history of Prudhoe Bay leaked from the Trans-Alaska pipeline because the infrastructure was old and rusted, said Linklater.

Such catastrophes must be weighed against arguments like reducing US dependency on foreign oil.

“It just doesn’t make economic sense to go in there and drill for oil that you won’t be able to get out for 10 years because you’ll have to build up all this infrastructure,” said Linklater.