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ATLANTA, Ga. -- The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge today gained nearly 40,000 oil-drilling opponents when the Alaska Coalition of Georgia was launched in Atlanta.
ACG represents 14 environmental and religious groups from across Georgia, including the Sierra Club of Georgia, the Wilderness Society, the Islamic Society of Augusta and the Southern Environmental Law Center.
"There is little to gain," from drilling in Alaska, "but so much to lose," said Jim Stephens, a past executive of the Sierra Club of Georgia.
Nearly 50 supporters attended ACG's launch at The Carter Center, just east of downtown Atlanta.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which set aside 104 million acres of Alaska wilderness for protection.
Carter, who was not on hand for today's event, issued a statement that was read at the ceremony.
"I am thankful that many people nationwide are committed to continue the fight to preserve the natural treasures of Alaska," Carter said in the statement. "Conservation of the pristine Alaska wilderness is a concern not just for citizens of that state, but for citizens throughout the nation."
Not everyone, however, agrees with Carter and ACG that the Alaska tundra is a pristine environment, unsuitable for oil drilling.
ANWR "is far from being a pristine area," said Kim Duke, executive director of Anchorage-based Arctic Power, a nonprofit organization whose single mission is to open up the refuge to oil drilling. Duke noted that a village of about 300 people is in the area and that the U.S. military once stationed about 100 people there.
She said Arctic Power estimates drilling in the ANWR area would require about 60 miles of added pipeline and fewer than 2,000 acres of the site's 1.5 million protected acres.
"There's absolutely no reason for anyone to believe this is a catastrophe and it's going to destroy the environment," she said.
Upon hearing of ACG's launch in Atlanta, U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States underscored how vital it is for Americans to rely less heavily on foreign countries for oil production.
"We need more domestic sources of energy; otherwise we are going to continue to count on oil from unstable governments in the very part of the world in which we are fighting," he said.
ACG members said drilling advocates are pushing for ANWR development only because they backed George W. Bush in his bid for the presidency and now expect his support in their efforts.
"This is a payback," said Walter Andrews, president of the Atlanta chapter of the Communications Workers of America. "They want to destroy Alaska."
The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that would open up part of ANWR for oil drilling. The U.S. Senate has yet to consider a corresponding measure.
ACG and Arctic Power believe the Senate will address the matter within the next two months. Both plan to continue to lobby Congress.