Monday, January 08, 2007

Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich Invites ANWR Opponent Ed Markey To Visit Alaska


Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (pictured at left courtesy of Muni.org) not only faxed a letter to Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) asking him to reconsider his proposal to permanently prohibit oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), but has also invited him to visit Alaska and see ANWR for himself. This post incorporates reports from KTUU Channel 2, KTVA Channel 11, and the Anchorage Daily News.

The letter, dated January 8th, 2007, can be viewed HERE in PDF format. Addressed to Rep. Markey, with an info copy to Rep. James Ramstad, it is clearly one of the more diplomatic yet concise missives I've seen from Mayor Begich. He begins by smartly linking both conservation and increased access.

The mayor continues by urging measures to encourage energy conservation and renewable energy development, use of new environmentally friendly technologies, and significant steps to reduce emissions which are contributing to global warming. He acknowledges the need for environmental responsibility, but he also highlights our excessive dependence on uncertain foreign sources of energy as equally problematic.

The mayor downplays the risks by calling attention to new environmentally sensitive technologies, such as 3-D seismic, directional drilling, and some of the strictest environmental standards on earth, which permit the discovery and production of oil and gas while protecting sensitive habitats and the wildlife that live on them. He stresses that those are the standards we would apply to the Arctic Refuge when development is finally permitted there.

Finally, he proffers a "peace pipe" to Lower 48 residents by acknowledging the legitimacy of their concerns, downplaying the "Alaska First" mentality that we're so tempted to present to Outsiders when they challenge our prerogatives. He finishes by inviting Rep. Markey to Alaska to see the Arctic Refuge first hand for himself.

Mayor Begich's letter and invitation is in response to legislation introduced on Friday, January 5th which would make the 1.2-million-acre ANWR coastal strip a permanently protected wilderness and end repeated efforts to open the area east of the Prudhoe oil field to development. Rep. Markey is the chief sponsor of the legislation.

"The consensus is that there should not be drilling in the refuge, so the logical next step is to pass legislation which turns it into a wilderness," said Markey. Markey has introduced similar legislation in each of the last three congressional sessions. However, the House has approved drilling in the refuge a half-dozen times, only to see the effort die in the Senate, where supporters couldn't muster the 60 votes to overcome a likely filibuster.

This time, with Democrats in the majority and a number of moderate Republicans on record as opposed to drilling, Markey believes he has a good chance in the House to go one step further and declare the refuge permanently off-limits to oil development. A co-sponsor of the bill is Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-MN), which explains why the mayor sent him a copy of the letter.

Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, also believes the outcome this time will be different. "What's changed is we won't have those daily assaults from pro-drilling forces", Shogan said. "We are definitely on the offense." Environmentalists said they plan to mobilize behind the Markey-Ramstad legislation, the same people who have fought drilling proposals in past years.

Two years ago, when Republicans expanded their majorities in the House and Senate, opening ANWR appeared likely. It already had been a top energy priority of President Bush since 2001. "Many people had written the obituary for the refuge," said Melinda Pierce, legislative director of the Sierra Club. But a concerted push by pro-drilling forces fell short. However, with Democrats in charge, the momentum may be shifting.

Environmentalists know that in the Senate they will need 60 votes to get the wilderness designation, with the filibuster threat coming from Republicans this time. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), who has battled to open the refuge to oil drilling for a quarter-century, has not given up.

The coastal strip of ANWR, as the refuge is commonly referred to, is believed to contain 10.5 billion barrels of oil, approaching the size of the Prudhoe Bay field to the west. At peak production, the refuge could supply one million barrels a day by 2025, according to the Interior Department. According to ANWR.org, the area of the Refuge under consideration constitutes only 8% of the total area of the Refuge and, once production begins, only 2,000 acres, or less than 0.5% will be affected. Drilling proponents also argue that modern technology can limit the footprint on the coastal tundra and develop the oil without disturbing the wildlife.

On the other hand, to environmentalists and conservationists the refuge's coastal strip represents the ultimate wild place to be protected. They compare it to the Serengeti in Africa because of the wildlife that abound: polar bears, musk oxen, caribou and millions of birds that fly there as part of their annual migration. Ironically, the Bush Administration's recent proposal to designate the polar bear as a "threatened" species may also strengthen the environmentalist hand.

Analysis: The letter is a well-balanced diplomatic piece of work. He stresses high gas prices and dependence of UNCERTAIN foreign energy sources as selling points. He repeatedly employs the phrase "environmentally friendly". Most importantly, Mayor Begich avoids the defensive "Alaska-first" tone frequently accompanying discussion of this issue. The phrase "national constituency whose legitimate concerns cannot be ignored" is designed to cater to those who believe that, although the Refuge is in Alaska and most pronouncedly affects Alaskans, that many Americans consider themselves "co-owners". Smart move on Begich's part.

But will it work? Alaska has only three electoral votes. This does not impress many politicos back East, who think they can ignore us because of that deficiency. Tony Knowles understands this problem first hand. In a tightly-contested U.S. Senate race in 2004, when control of the Senate was at stake, a visit by Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry could have pushed him over the edge. Instead, he got a visit from...Dennis Kucinich. Knowles lost.

However, if any Alaskan can change Markey's mind, Mark Begich can do it. And if he does, with him term-limiting out as mayor in early 2009, this sets him up for a possible run for higher office afterwards.

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