There’s no mistaking a moment of true leadership. So I was riveted last summer when Senator John McCain of Arizona, just after his cancer diagnosis, eloquently urged his colleagues to drop the partisan rhetoric and work together.
McCain’s topic was health care, but his comments also apply to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge is one of the last truly wild landscapes left in the U.S. — essential habitat for caribou, polar bears, and more than 200 species of birds that migrate through all 50 states and six continents.
The 2018 budget that just passed the House opens this pristine landscape to drilling for fossil fuels. If the Senate agrees, the result will be irreversible damage to the Refuge, with a destructive ripple effect on bird populations around the globe.
Yet drilling in the Refuge makes less sense now than ever before. Once upon a time, people advocated drilling in a whirlwind of urgency around domestic oil scarcity, energy independence, and national security. But that’s old news:
- New technology has nearly doubled U.S. oil production since 2008. Domestic demand has flattened. U.S. oil exports are booming, and there’s a glut of oil worldwide. So much oil is now available that the President has proposed selling off half our strategic oil reserves.
- Echoing the President, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says that our goal is not just energy independence, but “energy dominance.” With little acknowledgement of renewables, energy dominance means fossil fuel dominance — today’s justification for opening federal lands to drilling.
In a glutted world market, is it still urgent, or even economically feasible, to seek oil from the Refuge? And does fossil fuel dominance, rather than our previous goal of national security, justify such a profound sacrifice of our nation’s wildlife and wild lands?
Critical questions — but the Senate won’t address them. Instead, drilling in the Refuge will be tucked into a budget reconciliation bill. Unlike typical legislation, budget reconciliation can’t be filibustered. So approval requires just 50 votes in the Senate, not the usual 60. Opening the Refuge to drilling won’t require bipartisan compromise. Or even bipartisan discussion.
Which brings us back to Senator McCain, who's urging the Senate to resume its historic role of building bipartisan consensus. Similarly, Senators Lindsey Graham, Orrin Hatch, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, among others, have resisted the President’s request to do away with the filibuster altogether. They’re right. Our nation’s most important decisions deserve 60 votes.
So why should caution, and Senate history, be thrown to the winds with the Arctic Refuge? Because then it’ll be easier to approve drilling. The American people favor protecting the Refuge by about 2:1. If 60 votes were required, the facts would be examined, and reason might prevail.
So let’s ask our Senators to remove the Arctic Refuge from the budget process. As ornithologist David Sibley says, “If you care about the birds in your neighborhood, and the health of the ecosystems in the Lower 48, protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is essential.”
Here are more details from the National Audubon Society for those who wish to call your Senator now: