WASHINGTON – Calling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge “a national treasure” that deserves protection, Rep. Tom Allen Wednesday joined a bipartisan coalition in introducing legislation to protect the refuge from oil exploration.
“Drilling in the refuge is environmentally unsound and will only damage a national treasure,” Allen said.
Together with 118 members in the House and 23 in the Senate, Allen and Rep. John Baldacci are co-sponsoring legislation that would make the 1.5-million-acre tract a wilderness area and thus prevent oil drilling.
The Arctic Wilderness Act, which has received massive support from national environmental groups, was introduced just two days after Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, introduced legislation proposing oil drilling in the refuge.
Allen said he agreed with the Bush administration that a national energy policy is needed. “However, they have made the refuge the cornerstone of their policy, and their arguments are deeply flawed,” he said.
Allen and many other co-sponsors who attended a news conference Wednesday in front of the Capitol said drilling in the refuge neither addresses the current energy crisis nor serves as a long-term solution to America’s dependency on foreign oil.
Instead, Allen said, Congress should work to promote construction of energy-efficient buildings. That way, “you don’t need to drill, and you decrease pollution at the same time.”
“We must create an energy plan that uses energy efficiency, encourages technological innovation and conservation,” he said.
For example, Allen added, “increasing our fuel mileage to 39 miles a gallon could save three times as much oil as what is in the refuge and would help protect our air quality.”
Baldacci echoed Allen’s feelings about the need for more conservation and better use of existing resources. “There are plenty of capped wells in the United States that could be used to get oil,” he said. “I’d rather support tax incentives for businesses and individuals to reopen those wells.”
Baldacci also is co-sponsoring legislation to promote tax incentives for the construction of energy-efficient buildings and the development of alternative energy sources.
“Our nation should improve its energy self-sufficiency,” said Baldacci. “But the country’s demand for energy far outstrips the potential oil reserves in the Coastal Plains. I am not persuaded that we should sacrifice our precious natural heritage for the sake of precious little oil.”
Allen said he was surprised at the huge turnout of supporters from environmental groups including The Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society and the National Audubon Society at the news conference.
“It’s a very good feeling in terms of the grass-roots energy on this issue,” he said. “It’s clear the environmental community is very well organized and engaged.”
Allen said special places like the refuge and national parks in this country deserve protection, and Congress should work on protecting them. “In this case we can’t rely on representatives from Alaska because they are so close to the oil and mining industry.”
Murkowski, however, said the environment and the wildlife in the refuge would not be adversely affected by the drilling.
“Oil development of the coastal plain will be conducted under rigid environmental regulations that will prevent any disturbance to wildlife in summer – the only time that caribou and bird life visit the coastal plain,” Murkowski said.
But representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service argued that the effects of drilling would be detrimental to the refuge’s wildlife and environment.
“Millions of migrating birds from all over the nation live in the refuge for part of the year,” said Karen Boylan, assistant regional director for external affairs at the service’s regional office in Alaska. Their habitat would be destroyed through any drilling, she said.