Before Bush boarded his helicopter for evacuation into the Maryland hill country for Christmas at Camp David, the president-in-lycra made the inexplicable observation that "it’s been a great year for Americans." He probably wasn’t speaking for the families of the 735 US troops who had been killed in Iraq in 2005, although increasingly the military death toll there is claiming the lives of recent Mexican immigrants, who Bush may not consider fully "American". Also Bush likely wasn’t talking about the 300,000 people still displaced by Hurricane Katrina, perhaps because the First Mother has assured him that those who were dropped off in Texas have never had it so good. And he certainly wasn’t referring to Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, once the most powerful man on the Hill, who whined in a threnody worthy of a passage from Aeschylus, that the close of this year’s congressional session had been the worst day of his life.
What tragedy could have cast such a gloomy pall across the mighty man from Anchorage, who, as chairman of the Senate appropriations committee, commands the flow of trillions of dollars from the federal treasury? The final days of congress are usually a joyous time for Stevens. This is the season when he gets to play Santa, by implanting into the final budget bills billions of dollars of porkbarrel projects in the states of senators who have shown him the proper obeisance over the previous year and by stripping out cherished projects from those few who had dared to defy him.
But this year, it was Stevens who was rudely jolted by a last second reversal of fortune, when his brethren and sistren in the senate blocked his stealthy maneuver to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration.
Surely, the Porcupine caribou herd raised their heads at Stevens’s long-distance howl and snorted in celebration at the news that their calving grounds on the Arctic plain had been spared for yet another year from intrusion by oil derricks and pipelines and that their nemesis for the last 30 years had received a rare rebuke.
Stevens’s agony must be all the more acute because he was so tantalizingly close to achieving what he has said is his last major objective as a senator. Indeed, earlier this year, after the senator had slipped the ANWR drilling measure into the budget reconciliation bill in an effort to evade the senate filibusters that had frustrated his efforts in the past, Stevens told his hometown paper, the Anchorage Daily News, that his work in the senate was done and he could now retire a contented man.
Stevens wasn’t counting on the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to throw a monkey wrench into his devious plans. But that’s exactly what happened this fall when 25 Republicans, staring at polar-bear friendly poll numbers and not wanting to risk aligning themselves with the oil company executives who had gloated about making record profits in the wake of Katrina, demanded that the ANWR provision be stripped from the budget bill. The defeat of ANWR in what Stevens contemptuously calls the "other body" may also reflect the collapse of House discipline now that Tom DeLay has been forced to stand aside as leader following his indictment in Texas.
While the Sierra Club feted itself over a rare environmental victory in the GOP-ruled House, Stevens went back to his laboratory and brewed up another recipe from his book of legislative alchemy. The senator single-handedly affixed the ANWR measure to the Defense Appropriation Bill, hoping that Democrats and anti-drilling Republicans wouldn’t have the guts to launch a last minute filibuster that might be seen as denying weapons, body armor, food and Humvees to the troops in Iraq. The senate also linked Katrina relief money to the ANWR measure. "There’ll be no Katrina money without ANWR drilling," Stevens brayed. But Stevens’s gambit failed, when he fell four votes shy of overcoming a filibuster.
It is a sweet irony that within a matter of months, both houses had approved opening ANWR to drilling and, then, they both rejected it. In a mournful editorial, the Wall Street Journal called the turn of events "surreal." And for once they’re right.
Of course, next spring, with the regularity of migrating warblers, the ANWR drilling forces will press their case once more, with Ted Stevens leading the charge. But the window of vulnerability is closing for ANWR. Stevens is in his twilight. He seems a frail and diminished figure these days, ranting in the well of the Senate, a Republican version of Bobby Byrd, who also once ruled the appropriations game and steered federal wealth to the carved hills of West Virginia.
Stevens must feel that the oil cartel has let him down, first by the orgy of profiteering in the wake of the hurricanes, then with the utterly unrepentant performance of the oil executives during the congressional show hearings into their record profits, where the CEOs refused to even feign the slightest blush of contrition.
The final blow, though, was the distinct lack of vigor shown by oil industry lobbyists in the battle for ANWR. For Stevens this must seem like a kind of heresy. He is a crusader now, for whom the conquest of ANWR has assumed a religious fervor. Stevens wants to drill a well through the heart not only of ANWR, but the idea of ANWR, the paganistic precedent of a swath of public land in his state that is off-limits to industrial exploitation.
"It’s an empty, ugly place," Stevens snarled. "It’s almost treasonous that environmentalists are sacrificing our national security for such a place." The mad senator raged that he planned to visit the states of each senator who voted against him to inform the citizens of their treachery.
But for the oil companies it’s always been about maximizing profits and there’s mounting evidence that without generous federal subsidies or a major spike in global oil prices there might not be enough oil lurking under the permafrost of ANWR to justify the legislative fight and the years of protracted litigation.
No one really knows how much oil lies under ANWR. There’s only been a single test hole drilled in the area and that was on native lands and the results have been kept a closely guarded secret for years. The geology of ANWR is suggestive of an oil field holding between 5 billion and 10 billion barrels. But if the price of oil stays below $60 a barrel, fully 30 percent of that total won’t be economically recoverable. That leaves somewhere between 3.5 billion and 7 billion barrels-a big find, but not huge. At peak production, ANWR oil, sluiced down the Alaska pipeline, might satiate about 5 percent of US oil demand. But only for about three years. Then production would begin a steady decline until the reserves are exhausted in 20 years or so. Add to this prospectus, the expense and risk of transporting the crude from the Arctic to US refineries in southern California-assuming the crude isn’t shipped across the Pacific to refineries in China and South Korea.
From the oil cartel’s vantage, there’s easier prey to be had in the Alaskan National Petroleum Reserve just west of Prudhoe Bay, in the Canadian Yukon or in the Gulf of Mexico. If Stevens can deliver them ANWR gift-wrapped with production subsidies as his senatorial swan song, so much the better. If not, there’s no reason to sweat it. As Exxon and its brethren proved this year, oil shortages, real or engineered, yield eye-popping profits with little costs. And when the price gets high enough, every last drop of crude will once again be within their clutches.
As for the environmental movement, ANWR has functioned as their own private cash reserve since the 1980s when James Watt put a bullseye on that austere stretch of Arctic coastline. There’s been no more lucrative fundraiser for the Sierra Club than the annual threat of oil wells being drilled in the home of the polar bear and musk oxen. To the political cynic, it might appear that the environmental movement profits from having ANWR under perpetual threat.
But with Stevens weakened and the oil industry distracted, it’s time for the green cabal in Washington to push hard for permanent protection of the American Serengeti by demanding that the entire wildlife refuge to be designated a federal wilderness area forever immune from attack by the oil and gas companies, a stratagem they inexplicably chose not to pursue during Clintontime.
Of course, a successful wilderness campaign might mean a diminished flow of revenues in the future. But these green groups are supposed to be non-profits, aren’t they?
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon, just published by Common Courage Press.