WASHINGTON — When a trio of U.S. senators arrives today in the tiny Alaska village of Kaktovik (population 220; average high temperature this time of year, minus 9 degrees), the real arm-twisting begins.
The trip is a critical phase of the heavy lobbying campaign to win the precious few undecided votes in Congress to support President Bush's favorite and most divisive energy initiative: oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
It is Bush's toughest environmental battle, on an issue that is a major element of a national energy strategy expected to be unveiled soon by the White House.
Bush has advocated oil and gas exploration on 1.5 million acres of the 19.6-million-acre refuge in the northeast corner of Alaska as a way to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. The California electricity crisis, price spikes for natural gas throughout the country and dire warnings of energy shortages this summer have increased the pressure on Congress to permit the drilling.
Foes say drilling could spoil one of the nation's most precious wild areas, home to caribou, polar bears and more than 130 bird species. They say the drilling would do nothing to help solve the California power crisis because only 1% of the state's electricity is produced by oil.
Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is leading the trip to Kaktovik to showcase Alaska support for the drilling. Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton is accompanying the group.
Alaska's pro-drilling, three-man congressional delegation--Murkowski, Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, all Republicans--has taken lawmakers on tours of the refuge before. But with an ex-oilman in the White House and business-friendly Republicans in control of Capitol Hill and the White House for the first time since the Eisenhower era, the political climate to permit the drilling is better now than it has been in years.
Still, passage is far from certain. Drilling proponents suffered a setback this week when the House left out of a budget resolution $1.2 billion in payments the government expects to receive from drilling in the refuge.
Bush also acknowledged the tough fight. "I think it's important for us to open up" the refuge, he said at a news conference Thursday. "Whether or not the Congress sees it that way is another matter."
There might not be a vote on the issue until summer.
During their visit to Kaktovik, senators will hear from native Inupiat Eskimos who count on oil royalties to fund their schools and other services. "It's a matter of survival for my people," Tara Sweeney, an Ivy League-educated Inupiat, said during a recent trip to Washington, where she lobbied Congress to allow drilling.
Environmental groups are countering with their own trips to Alaska for lawmakers and with television ads, polls and biological studies. "I don't think the public has forgotten things like the Exxon Valdez" oil tanker spill, said Robert Dewey, vice president for government relations of Defenders of Wildlife.
Exxon Valdez Still a Factor
Big Oil has kept a low profile in the lobbying battle. The pro-drilling fight has been led by Arctic Power, an Alaska-based group that receives funding from the state government and the oil industry.
The group has sought to highlight its support from Alaskans, ranging from the state's Democratic governor to union leaders. After stops at the site of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster (where drilling supporters want to point to steps taken to prevent future spills) and the Prudhoe Bay oil fields--the senators will arrive in Kaktovik.
Environmentalists say the lawmakers won't see much more than frozen tundra this time of year. "They'll fly over it and say, 'See, there's nothing there,' " said Adam Kolton, Arctic campaign director of the Alaska Wilderness League. Environmental groups plan their own congressional tour of the refuge--a camping trip during the Fourth of July recess--when wildlife is more plentiful.
Drilling advocates defend the timing of their trip, saying exploration will take place in the winter when the caribou and bird populations have left the frigid region.
Besides Murkowski, the two other senators on this weekend's trip are Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a drilling foe; and Mark Dayton (D-Minn.), who has voiced opposition to the drilling. But more trips are planned.
Murkowski has been among the most passionate and relentless advocates of the drilling. He has taken to the Senate floor, pointer in hand, to lecture on the migratory patterns of the Porcupine caribou herd. And he has pitched drilling at the dedication of an oil tanker at a shipyard in Louisiana, home of undecided Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu.
Last week, Murkowski directed an aide to move one of his favorite props--a picture of brown bears walking on the trans-Alaska pipeline--into a prominent position before a news conference to tout the Teamsters endorsement of drilling.