Alaskans respond to ANWR drilling decision

Posted: Thursday, March 20, 2003

Wednesday morning's U.S. Senate vote on opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration had Alaskans such as Faith Gemmill on the edge of their seats.

When the measure went down in defeat, the program coordinator for the Gwich'in Steering Committee in Fairbanks said she got 78 e-mails of congratulations from environmentalist supporters across the country.

But the result had Kim Duke, executive director of Arctic Power, fuming. She's been lobbying for opening ANWR for 15 years.

"It's just frustrating that people from outside are deciding for us up here," Duke said. "Who ought to know better how to do oil production up here than ourselves?"

Alaska once again watched its fate dealt with at the hands of policy-makers at the other end of the country. In a 52-48 vote Wednesday, the Senate approved an amendment stripping an ANWR oil-drilling provision from a budget resolution expected to be approved later this week.

And once again, the reaction in Alaska was a mix of elation and weary disheartenment.

"This was our big hope this year and it's just a huge disappointment, beyond frustrating," said Duke, who joined the nonprofit pro-drilling group Arctic Power in 1992, never thinking the job would last this long.

For the Natives of the Interior, opening ANWR means a threat to the Porcupine caribou herd and the culture of the Gwich'in people, Gemmill said.

"Any disruption up there would threaten our way of life," she said.

But in Kaktovik, an Inupiat Native village of 260 people on a coastal barrier island in the refuge, about three-quarters of the population see opening ANWR as a way to improve village life, said Mayor Lon Sonsalla. The state's fiscal troubles extend to the local government level, meaning boroughs, towns and villages all face budget cuts that drilling might lessen.

After Wednesday's Senate vote, Sonsalla said most village residents were matter-of-fact about the issue.

"You couldn't say anyone around here was exactly holding their breath," Sonsalla said. "We haven't been holding our breath for 15 years now."

Sen. Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, characterized Wednesday's vote as the defeat of drilling supporters' best shot this congressional session. But Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young still hopes his ANWR provisions in a House bill will stay intact.

Still, it would put the question in the same position it faced last year when the Senate couldn't muster 60 votes to overcome a Democratic filibuster. While a simple majority of the 100-member Senate was needed to keep ANWR in the budget bill, 60 votes are needed to end a filibuster expected to block energy legislation, including ANWR.

Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens was angry at being unable to push the measure through, despite his considerable clout as chairman of the budget-writing Senate Appropriations Committee.

"People who vote against this today are voting against me and I will not forget," Stevens declared on the floor.

In Alaska, Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski said Wednesday's vote was the best chance for opening ANWR.

"On the other hand, what events may unfold as a consequence of the conflict in Iraq are unforeseeable at this time, and there may be an opportunity to revisit this," he said.

Deborah Williams, executive director of the Alaska Conservation Foundation, was thrilled at what she saw as a decisive victory.

"What this vote demonstrated," Williams said, "is that even under single-party rule that there are a sufficient number of enlightened Republicans who care about representing their constituents correctly on this issue that the Senate will never vote in favor of opening the refuge."

Democratic leaders in the state Legislature said they were disappointed with the vote. But they used it to criticize Murkowski for pinning his budget hopes on projects that are out of the state's control.

"That ANWR vote heightens the importance of us taking the initiative to solve our own problems," said House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, an Anchorage Democrat.

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