Following a vote in the United States Senate last week to block changes to a bill which would have allowed oil exploration and development of a fragile wildlife habitat in the Arctic, activists are now planning their next steps to ensure that the area remains protected from future environmental threats.
The bipartisan rejection, by 54 votes to 46, of an amendment to the Senate's 2002 Energy Policy Act was welcomed by environmental campaigners as a victory for all those who had opposed moves to tap into natural resources in part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
The amendment, sponsored by Alaskan Senator Frank Murkowski, would have given President George W. Bush (news - web sites) authority to open up ANWR's coastal plain to the oil and gas industries if such a move was deemed to be "in the economic and security interests of the United States."
"We're very excited that the Senate voted against the ANWR amendment," said Gopal Dayaneni, oil campaign coordinator from Project Underground, a California-based organization that is working with members of the local Gwich'in indigenous group who have struggled against oil development in the Refuge.
"This is an overall blow to drilling in ANWR. But it is not a dead issue. The bill is still on the negotiating table," said Dayaneni, noting that after its approval by the Senate, the bill will be passed to a joint congressional committee where its differences from a version drafted by the House of Representatives last year will be ironed out. The House version also favors ANWR drilling.
Campaigners have maintained that oil production would have devastating effects on the wildlife of ANWR's coastal plain, "the biological heart of the refuge." The area is best known for the summer grazing of thousands of Porcupine Caribou, which are also a food source for the Gwich'in people.
According to data from a 1998 U.S. Geological Survey and the Energy Information Agency, the mean estimate for the total amount of oil which could be extracted from drilling in the Refuge, 7.7 billion barrels, would equal only enough to supply the U.S. for six months at its present daily consumption rate of 17.7 million barrels.
It is now important to focus on gaining long-term protection for the area, according to Brooks Yeager, vice president of the World Wide Fund for Nature's (WWF) global threats program. While some 19 million acres of Alaska's northeastern corner were declared a national wildlife refuge by Congress in 1980, the status of the coastal plain was left "open" because of its resource potential.
"Although the area has been managed as wilderness and drilling has been banned by law since 1980, it is important to keep the area protected forever," Yeager said, adding that WWF's goal was to see the coastal plain officially designated as wilderness by Congress.
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