FY '97 Budget Again Attacks Arctic Wildlife Refuge

Bumpers Will Offer Senate Amendment to Save Public Lands

(05/17/1996) - Washington, D.C: Conservationists warn that the FY '97 House Budget Resolution passed this afternoon again contains a back-door provision to open the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. They are urging the Senate to pass an amendment to its budget resolution, which is now on the floor, to head off sales of Arctic leases and public lands.

Rodger Schlickeisen, Defenders' president, noted that, "Despite the fact that the American public has repeatedly repudiated their extreme environmental agenda, special interests are once again pushing to open our greatest wildlife refuge to development. They -- not the American taxpayer -- would benefit from the raid on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge."

He noted that an attempt to open the Arctic drew massive public opposition and a veto in the '96 budget: "The need to preserve the Arctic refuge -- "America's Serengeti" -- was a big reason why President Clinton vetoed the budget reconciliation bill last year, and we expect he'll do it again if need be. We hope the Senate will cut short this latest wilderness attack."

Warning that last year's budget resolution "opened the door to a yard sale of our nation's treasured public lands and natural resources," Defenders of Wildlife and fifteen other conservation organizations announced support for a Senate amendment expected to be offered tonight or tomorrow by Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-AR) to reject a budget accounting gimmick designed to encourage sales of Arctic Refuge leases and public lands.

It is questionable whether significant oil reserves would be found beneath the refuge, and polls show that most Americans think drilling would not be worth the damage to the refuge even if such reserves were discovered. The Arctic Refuge provides critical habitat to more than 200 species of animals, including caribou, polar bears, migratory birds, wolves, grizzly bears, muskoxen and wolverines.

The House Budget Resolution, H. Con.Res. 178, assumes federal revenues of $950 million in net budget authority and outlays from lease sales in the Arctic Refuge coastal plain from 1997 through the year 2002. This figure is based on questionable assumptions about the amount of oil that would be found, and also assumes that the federal government would get 50 percent of the revenues and the state of Alaska the other 50 percent. However, the state of Alaska currently receives 90 percent not 50 percent of the revenues from lease sales of this type on the North Slope. Assuming Alaska would push vigorously for this 90 percent, it is likely that the federal revenues would be significantly less than those projected in the budget proposal.

Alaska's congressional delegation reportedly has promised that the bulk of the revenues will go to the state, not the federal Treasury. The September 10, 1995 Fairbanks Daily Miner quotes Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) as saying, "My concept. . . is we should get the exploration going now, then the compact (Alaska Statehood Act of 1959) can be enforced in court. Once the state actually receives less than 90 percent, then we can sue."

The Senate is currently debating the Senate Budget Resolution, S. Con. Res. 57, and is expected to take a final vote Friday evening. Although the Senate does not explicitly state that there is an assumption of Arctic refuge drilling, Schlickeisen says, "They may be taking even a more stealthy approach than the House."

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is directed to come up with an outlay reduction of about $1.4 billion between 1997 and 2002. A summation of other likely sources of revenues or savings under the Committee's jurisdiction leaves a shortfall of approximately $950 million -- almost exactly the amount included in the House resolution from lease sales in the Arctic refuge. This is also the amount that the Congressional Budget Office has currently estimated as available from opening the refuge if the federal government received 50 percent. The Defenders' president asks, "Is the Senate leadership hiding its intentions because the proposed drilling in the Arctic is so unpopular with the American people?" He notes that several polls conducted last year indicate that Americans do not support drilling in the Arctic refuge. An October 1995 CNN poll found that two-thirds of Americans strongly oppose drilling in the Arctic refuge; an October 1995 Lake Research poll found that by a 56 to 28 percent margin, voters reject the claim that oil drilling could be conducted in an environmentally safe way. The Lake poll also found that nearly six in ten voters (58 percent) oppose drilling even if oil royalties were used to reduce the federal deficit.

Late tonight or tomorrow, Senator Bumpers will be offering an amendment that would prevent the inclusion of Arctic Refuge lease sales in the budget process. The Bumpers "asset sale" amendment would restore a prohibition against counting sales of assets such as Arctic Refuge oil and gas lease sales toward the budget deficit. The prohibition, which had been in force since 1990, was removed in last year's budget resolution. Without this prohibition, the sale of public assets such as national parks, forests and wildlife refuges will be scored as though they reduce the federal deficit in the year in which the sale occurs. This means that the Arctic refuge can be opened to drilling or our national parks, forests, and other public lands can be sold under the guise of balancing the budget. Under current law, there are already mechanisms for the sale of federal assets when appropriate; such sales would not be prohibited by the Bumpers amendment.

Conservationists say the Arctic refuge is a prime example of a treasure belonging to all Americans that should not be despoiled for private profit or a temporary budget savings. The 152,000-member Porcupine Caribou Herd gives birth to its young on the coastal plain of the refuge, and the area is also the nation's most important on-shore habitat for polar bear denning. The native Gwich'in people in Alaska and Canada would be severely impacted by expected declines in the Porcupine Caribou Herd if drilling is allowed to occur. Biologists predict that the oil rigs, roads, pipelines, airstrips, production facilities, seismic surveys, and pollution associated with development would have severe negative impacts on the fragile coastal plain ecosystem.

Groups signing a letter to the Senate in support of the Bumpers amendment include the Alaska Coalition, Alaska Wilderness League, Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, National Audubon Society, National Parks & Conservation Association, National Wildlife Federation, National Wildlife Refuge Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Sierra Club, Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, Taxpayers for Common Sense, The Wilderness Society, and U.S. Public Interest Research Group.



Joan Moody, 202-682-9400 x220 (Media)
Mary Beth Beetham, 202-682-9400 x231 (Approps.)