Keeping the drills out of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge

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In these remarks prepared for a news conference in 1990, Gaylord Nelson, as counselor to The Wilderness Society, voices opposition to resurgent plans to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for oil extraction. He champions energy conservation as a more sensible alternative.

The North Slope of Alaska had long been an environmental battle ground. After passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, preserving vast tracts of the state became a top priority of The Wilderness Society and leading conservationists in Congress. The oil lobby offered stiff competition with the assistance of oil state legislators like Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens. "Ecology deals with the relationship between living organisms," Stevens said in 1969, "but there are no living organisms on the North Slope."[1]

The 1973 oil embargo reshaped the political terrain unfavorably for environmentalists. President Nixon was able to secure easy approval for the contentious Trans-Alaska Pipeline. However, in the twilight of the Carter Administration, Nelson and his conservationist colleagues got through the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act which preserved over 100 million acres. Although the Reagan administration won the majority of its battles with environmentalists, the Democratic Congress successfully withstood a 1986 attempt to make ANWR subject to oil and gas exploration and development.

Early in the presidency of George H. W. Bush, the Senate indicated it would condone drilling in ANWR and the North Slope. Again, this political terrain was dramatically reshaped in March 1989 by the crash of the tanker Exxon Valdez, which dumped millions of gallons of crude oil into in Alaska's Prince William Sound in an ecological disaster of historic proportions.

Nelson made this statement in December 1990 as the Exxon Valdez oil spill was finally fading from the front pages of newspapers. It was replaced with dispatches from the Persian Gulf War and its deleterious effects on the global oil market.

Nelson predicted that the Bush Administration would take the opportunity of the Gulf War to renew calls for drilling in ANWR by playing to fears of rising fuel costs and the geopolitical dangers of relying on foreign oil. To counter this, Nelson urged the government to compose plans for energy conservation, echoing the proposals he made years earlier such as the suggestion in 1973 that Congress should "prohibit big cars that get little mileage [and should] develop more efficient utility power plants."

Nelson's prophecy of threats to ANWR would come true just 5 weeks after this press conference. President Bush produced an energy bill that the New York Times described as "emphasiz[ing] gains in output over efficiency," and built around the new reserves to be tapped in Alaska.[2] But Bush could not gain Congressional approval for this plan before the political terrain shifted again as oil prices dropped in the war's wake. Democrats successfully negotiated ANWR out of the Bush energy plan, though proponents of energy conservation like Senators James Jeffords and Timothy Wirth lamented that the resulting bill remained so heavily tilted toward production.


1 "Environment: Fighting to Save the Earth from Man," Time, February 2, 1970

2 Keith Schneider, "Bush's Energy Plan Emphasized Gains in Output over Efficiency," New York Times, February 9, 1991