The Arctic: A slave to luck


In politics, as in comedy, timing is everything. Sometimes you get lucky, but if you don't get lucky at the right time, you might as well not have gotten lucky at all.

The folks hereabouts fighting the Bush administration's plan to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge got a lucky break recently when Interior Secretary Gale Norton acknowledged that she had been a bit confused in one of the pro-drilling arguments she made to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

OK, both "lucky break" and "a bit confused" might be insufficient. This apparent piece of luck came from the hard work of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), one of Washington's in-your-face green groups. PEER found that last July, Norton told the committee that "concentrated calving" among the caribou that live around the Refuge "occurred primarily outside of the (proposed drilling) area in 11 of the last 18 years," and that her department's scientific data "do not support the hypothesis that oil fields adversely affect caribou productivity."

The trouble with these assertions, PEER found, is that they were not what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists told her. On the contrary, they had informed her that "there have been ... calving concentrations within the 1002 Area in 27 of the last 30 years," and that calving "pauses" (years that females do not produce) were more common in the developed areas of the existing Alaska oil operations around Prudhoe Bay.

Considering that Norton had promised during her confirmation hearings to "provide (Congress) the best scientific evaluation of the environmental consequences ... (of) any exploration and production" in the Refuge, this didn't look good. According to Eric Wingerter of PEER, it looked less good when Norton explained that she had compared Fish and Wildlife Service data with other peer-reviewed scientific studies which turned out not to have been peer-reviewed, and to have been "paid for by the oil companies."

Ah, the dangers of pushing every advantage. Matthew Cronin, senior biologist of LGL Alaska Research Associates is, by his own account, a biology Ph.D. from Yale, a teacher at the University of Alaska, and the author of many a peer-reviewed paper, who often works for oil companies but did this study on his own for publication in the Wildlife Society Bulletin. It was, he said, an analysis of other research, and was "peer-edited." But Cronin said his work, from which Norton got her view of fertility around Prudhoe Bay, did not deal at all with calving patterns among the herd in the ANWR area, leaving Norton still to explain the scientific basis on which she dissed her own department.

Under ordinary circumstances, all this would be great news for drilling opponents, allowing them to shift the argument from energy independence to the trustworthiness of the other side. Usually, it wouldn't be hard to get a senator to launch an investigation, complete with subpoenas, into this possible misuse of government scientists.

But, in case you hadn't noticed, these are not ordinary circumstances. It isn't just that Washington is preoccupied; it's darn near closed. The eager young staffers for Democratic senators who might jump at the chance to humiliate Gale Norton aren't even in their offices. They're home, where anthrax spores are less likely to be found.

Most of the reporters who might be interested in the story are otherwise occupied, or exhausted, or trying to get into Afghanistan. The story was in the Washington Post, PEER's leakee of choice, but days after the story ran, it had not made the New York Times. And the TV networks? Don't even ask.

So for the environmental lobbyists, this might end up being an opportunity lost, one of the lesser if longer-lasting casualties of terrorism. Not that their cause is lost. Right now the Senate vote looks just about even, with four to six Democrats ready to vote with the administration for drilling, and four to six Republicans possibly joining the opposition. But those Republicans are going to be subject to more pressure from their president than anyone can exert from the other side, and besides, a tie is a win for President Bush; Vice President Dick Cheney gets to break ties.

In this case, the power of the presidency may be offset by the power of the Senate majority leader. Sen. Tom Daschle has taken control of the energy bill, yanking it from the Energy Committee's agenda. There is a limit as to how long he can sit on the entire energy bill, but he does have the opportunity to try to get the ANWR-drilling provision out of it, using as ammunition the filibuster promised by Sen. John Kerry, D, of Massachusetts.

There may be 50 votes for drilling. There are nowhere near 60 to invoke cloture ending a filibuster.

And there's always the possibility of a lucky break. Ordinary circumstances do have a way of reasserting themselves.

Jon Margolis is HCN's eye on Washington, D.C. He lives in Vermont.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Jon Margolis

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