Saving America’s Serengetti


The ongoing war in Iraq-a war that is about US control of oil resources, among other things-and the recent disaster along the southern Gulf coast of the United States have brought the question of fossil fuel use and extraction back into the forefront of our consciousness. Ever since the Bush administration took over the White House, we have seen the demand for increased exploitation of new energy sources increase exponentially. At the forefront of proposed regions to be exploited is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. For those who have paid attention to this struggle over the years, they know that the desire to open up this land to oil drilling is not the solution to the country’s energy problems, either short term or long term. Furthermore, they know that the Congress is about evenly divided over the question of exploiting the region. Because there is no clear cut support for the measure, its proponents have attempted a variety of backdoor means to pass the legislation that would open it up. Citizens groups are working hard to prevent that. To this end, there will be a day of action on Tuesday, September 20th, 2005 in Washington, DC. I recently communicated with Laura Kiesel, a Research Associate of the Public Lands divisionof The National Wildlife Federation, who is working with a broad coalition of grassroots conservation groups to put the Day of Action together. She spoke (well, actually we emailed each other) with me as a representative of the coalition.

Ron: To begin with, what can you tell me about this rally in Washington, DC on September 20th?

Laura: The coalition of groups working to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will be sponsoring a citizen action day on Tuesday, September 20, 2005 in Washington D.C. On Arctic Refuge Action Day, thousands of Americans from across the country will come to the U.S. Capitol to urge lawmakers to protect America’s Arctic Refuge from oil drilling. Participants will be coming to DC from as far away as Oregon and Alaska, and thousands of Americans will assemble at 11 A.M. on the Capitol’s West Lawn for a gathering led by speakers and musicians. Action Day participants will then visit House and Senate offices to speak to their congressional representatives face-to-face about the upcoming vote on Arctic Refuge drilling.

Later this fall, both House and Senate are expected to vote on a budget reconciliation bill that would open the Arctic Refuge to oil drilling. Although the energy bill passed by Congress in July does not include Arctic Refuge drilling, proponents of the plan are expected to use budget reconciliation legislation to ramrod the controversial proposal through Congress.

Sign-ups for Arctic Refuge Action Day are being directed through a central website ( <>), and the citizen action day is a coordinated effort by grassroots organizers and volunteer “bus captains” across the country. Bus captains have already started working with a vast network of on-the-ground activists to organize busloads of citizen volunteers to make the trip to Washington, D.C.

Ron: Is there any attempt to tie it in to the related issues of global capitalism and its wars, which will be the focus of demonstrations in DC later that week?

Laura: Arctic Refuge Action Day is focused on sending a message to Congress that Americans do not want a budget reconciliation bill that opens the Arctic Refuge to development. We believe that using this backdoor approach to open the Arctic Refuge is reason enough for Members to vote against the entire bill; however, Arctic Drilling will not be the only bad part of this bill. We welcome all individuals to join us who are worried about any of the myriad of problems in the budget reconciliation package, including devastating cuts to federal student aid, Medicaid, food stamps and other public assistance to those who need it most.

Ron: Can you explain why the Bush administration and some members
of Congress are so anxious to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

Laura: I cannot really speak on behalf of the administration and its intentions. Proponents of oil drilling often claim that drilling in the Refuge would alleviate our oil demand and offset our dependence on foreign oil while also expanding the domestic job market. Proponents also have been quoted as saying that drilling in the Refuge can be conducted in a way that impacts on the environment would be minimal, leaving only a footprint, and that the drilling would only take place on 2,000 acres of the Refuge.

Ron: And why is the Arctic Refuge Action Coalition sponsoring the
September 20th event opposed?

Laura: The Arctic Refuge Action Coalition, which is a coalition of many environmental groups including National Wildlife Federation, believes that some places are too sacred to be subjected to oil development. The Refuge is known as America’s Serengeti and is one of the last truly wild places in America. The coastline of the Refuge, which is the area targeted for drilling, is the premiere calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd; the herd is primary source of subsistence and spirituality of the Gw’ichin tribe that resides in Arctic Village, Alaska. The coastline also contains the main denning sites for polar bears on the North Slope as well as provides summer habitat for approximately 150 species of migratory birds. Oil drilling is a large threat to the healthy endurance of these species. Currently, Prudhoe Bay [on Alaska’s North Slope] reports about 400 oil spills a year. If an oil spill were to occur [on the Refuge], it would have a devastating and most likely irreparable effect on the ecosystem and all those, human and non-human, who depend on it for their survival and livelihood.

Referring to the arguments given by oil proponents concerning production and demand, best scientific estimates conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey convey that there is only about six month’s worth of oil on the coastal plain. More optimistic estimates put it at about two years. This oil would not hit the market for almost a decade. USGS also estimates that the Arctic Refuge supplies would be well under 1 percent of the daily world consumption. The 2,000-acre figure that people hear proponents quote only refers to the areas where the oil will be extracted. It does not include the entire infrastructure that would have to be created to support the drilling. This would probably take up the 1.5 million acres of the plain.

As for the claim that drilling can be done in an environmentally-sensitive manner, all one needs to do is look at the record of Prudhoe Bay or recall the tragedy of the Exxon-Valdez spill of 1989 to understand that where there is oil drilling, it is always a question of when a spill will occur, not if. Accidents can and do happen and those responsible do not always take the steps needed to prevent them, or accurate steps to absolve them afterwards. There are no stringent environmental laws pertaining to this claim [of environmental safeguards with advanced technology]. It is a hollow promise. It is not worth it to risk this place or endanger its inhabitants for what is estimated to be a pittance of oil. It will also set a dangerous precedent that no place is sacred and open the doors to oil development in other places we care for.

Ron: You mentioned in your email that the recent energy bill essentially ignored fuel-conservation quotas. More recently Bush stated that he wanted to see some type of measures put into place. What’s the story on that?

Laura: At the end of last month, the Bush administration proposed higher fuel economy standards for “light trucks”. This includes minivans, SUVs and pick-ups. However, vehicles weighing over 8,500 pounds, like Hummer H2s, would be exempt from new fuel economy standards. The proposal would cancel out the current single standard for light trucks and replace it with a regulatory system that sets different goals for different categories of sizes of the vehicles. For instance, the proposed fuel efficiency target for smallest-sized vehicle would be 28.4 mpg, for the target, 21.3 mpg. These standards are estimated to only make up for 2 percent of the 500 billion gallons of gas that will be consumed during the four model years, which seems to be a paltry number. Many people in the environmental community are also concerned that this may prompt automakers to merely focus on manufacturing larger cars that elude these standards..

Ron: Beyond conservation, what do you advocate as genuine long term solutions to the growing threat to the world’s ecosystems because of fossil fuel consumption?

Laura: A long term solution will not be possible without serious improvements in our national and individual conservation efforts. Since the 1970s, the number of light trucks in the U.S. has tripled, increased by 56 %. Yet at the same time, virtually nothing has been done to increase fuel efficiency of these large gas-guzzlers. Currently, the U.S. alone consumes over a quarter of the world’s oil, even though we make up about 5 percent of the world population. Raising the federal standard for all passenger cars to a minimum of 35.2 mpg would save millions of gallons of oil each year, more than we would ever get out of drilling in the Refuge.

American consumers have a great deal of power with where they put their wallets. If there were grand changes in the way American society views its consumption of oil, not as an inherent right, but as a privilege not to be abused or misused, and we began to minimize our use of non-renewable energy, it would make a huge difference. Industries also would take notice and begin to invest more money into the development of renewable energy sources. This has already been seen with the hybrid: as the demand for it has been growing, so has the rate at which it is being manufactured–dramatically. In the long-term, we need the concept of conservation to become a pervasive mainstay in society, a consolidated effort with the full backing of industry and government. In tandem with that, we need to look towards renewable resources for our energy future.

Arctic Refuge Action Coalition includes: Alaska Coalition, The Alaska Wilderness League, Defenders of Wildlife, The Gwich’in Steering Committee, Earthjustice, Episcopal Church USA, The League of Conservation Voters, The National Audubon Society, The Natural Resources Defense Council, The National Wildlife Federation, The National Wildlife Refuge Association, Northern Alaskan Environmental Center, R.E.P. America, The Sierra Club, U.S. PIRG, The Washington Association of Churches, The Wilderness Society, The World Wildlife Fund and Trustees for Alaska

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at:





Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: