Warnings about oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska seem to have had a "boy-who-cried-wolf" quality to them over the years. With a certain regularity, and an eye on keeping their troops fired up, environmental activists raised alarms that soon faded.
This time, after a long-running debate going back three presidential administrations and even more congressional sessions, this most controversial of energy development plans is nearer than ever to approval.
The combination of skyrocketing oil prices, more environmentally friendly ways of drilling and transporting oil, and the prospect of long-term, high-paying jobs has given the project a political boost.
Until now, Democrats and a small number of Republicans have blocked the measure on Capitol Hill by threatening to filibuster. Now, proponents of drilling in ANWR are attaching such measures to federal budget bills, which may not be filibustered. This means those who want to keep the wildlife refuge free of oil rigs, roads, and heavy equipment need 51 votes in the Senate (not just 41) to block it.
That sets the bar much higher for environmentalists and their champions among lawmakers - especially at a time of sticker shock at the gas pump, hurricane- damaged refineries and drilling platforms along the Gulf Coast, and a White House headed by two former oilmen rather than President Clinton who threatened to veto such measures.
A vote in the Senate could come as early as Thursday, and early next week in the House. Then the two chambers would have to get together to craft a "reconciliation" budget bill.
Among those favoring energy development in ANWR, oil companies (especially those recently reporting large profits) aren't talking up the issue. They don't need to, says an industry source, because they already have a sure majority in Congress.
More vocal in favor of exploration and drilling are labor unions, whose members stand to benefit from construction and operation of new oil facilities in Alaska.
"ANWR development will quickly create thousands of jobs with strong wages and benefits," Teamsters union President Jim Hoffa said last week. "The impact of job growth will go well beyond Alaska and contribute to many states' economies."
Also supporting oil development are some of the 300 Inupiat Eskimos living in the village of Kaktovik, an island in the Beaufort Sea near ANWR, who welcome the prospect of economic growth.
As expected, antidrilling activists have reacted vigorously. In eight states around the country, they're targeting such moderate Republicans as Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith with TV ads and telephone blitzes.
They see it as part of "one of the most sweeping environmental rollbacks," in the words of spokesman Tony Iallonardo of the National Environmental Trust in Washington. In addition to ANWR, proponents in the House have included approval for off-shore oil drilling (after a 24-year federal moratorium) and a measure making it easier for mining companies to gain control of public land.
Meanwhile, opposition from other quarters has become more public and could become an international brouhaha.
In a recent letter to Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew reminded US officials that in 1987 the two countries pledged not to endanger the caribou herd, which migrates across the border each spring to calve in the ANWR area.
"The minimal oil resources in the Arctic Refuge will not make a timely or significant contribution to US energy supplies," Mr. Pettigrew wrote, echoing what US critics and government geologists say is a likely petroleum supply in ANWR amounting to less than a year's worth of economically-recoverable oil - none of it likely to reach the US market for at least 10 years.
Also, the Gwich'in people - the natives in 15 Arctic villages in the US and Canada - now are fighting the ANWR drilling proposal under international human rights law protecting indigenous peoples' cultures, subsistence, and ways of life. The Gwich'in are hunters who depend on the caribou herd, much as the Plains Indians did on the buffalo. Most of them are Episcopalians (converted by Anglican missionaries in the 18th century), so the Episcopal Church has spoken out for them.
"For centuries, the Christian moral tradition and the western legal tradition have consistently promoted aboriginal rights as a fundamental element of a basic and minimal commitment to justice," said Mark MacDonald, the Episcopal Bishop of Alaska, last week when the Gwich'in issued a report on the human rights implications of ANWR.
ANWR is the size of South Carolina, but the controversial area of potential oil development lies in a very small portion of the coastal plain.
With years of experience drilling and pumping oil from Alaska's North Slope, plus new technology, advocates say advanced "directional" drilling methods would allow for a much smaller "footprint" (drill rigs, roads, etc.) impacting wildlife. In all, just a few square miles of the refuge would be directly affected.
Not so, counter environmentalists, who call ANWR the "American Serengeti," a pristine wilderness, home to caribou, polar bears, musk, oxen, arctic foxes, wolverines, grizzly bears, snow geese and other migrating birds.