WASHINGTON (AP) -- Former President Carter says he ''inherited the mantle'' two decades ago of protector of an isolated Arctic wildlife refuge and is determined to do whatever he can now to keep oil companies from drilling there.
As President Bush promotes an energy plan that has at its core drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the president who extended its federal care 21 years ago is waging a campaign of his own: to keep the oil rigs out.
''It was set aside not to be exploited ... in order to have a very small amount of oil,'' the former president said Monday in a telephone interview from the Carter Center in Atlanta.
Only hours after Senate Republicans introduced an energy package that includes drilling along the Arctic Refuge's 1.5 million-acre coastal plain, Carter was on the telephone with reporters to denounce the proposal.
He previously has let his strong feelings about the refuge be known in op-ed newspaper pages and public remarks. He admits he has a passion over the issue, having ''invested so much time'' in it when president.
''I inherited the mantle of protecting ANWR from (President) Eisenhower,'' Carter said in a 20-minute interview. He added that had it been his choice alone in 1980, he would have made the refuge a national park, ensuring its protection from oil and gas drillers.
As it was, President Eisenhower had set aside the 19.5 million-acre area in the northeastern corner of Alaska as a refuge in 1960 but did not specifically prohibit oil development.
In 1980, Congress enacted the Alaska Lands Act and declared a ban on development of the coastal plain refuge's lodes of oil and natural gas without specific congressional approval. Carter signed the bill in one of his last acts as president.
Today, Carter calls it ''a compromise'' that protected the refuge's 1.5 million-acre coastal plain, where the oil is, while opening 95 percent of Alaska's coastal areas to oil exploration.
He is dismayed about the push now to try ''to destroy the pristine quality of ANWR'' -- the refuge is commonly known by its acronym -- ''in order to have a very small amount of oil which won't be available until 10 years in the future.''
Carter suggested that supporters of drilling have exaggerated the current energy problems to win support for developing the coastal plain.
Two major oil crises struck the U.S. economy in the 1970s -- first in 1973, as shortages caused blackouts and rapid increases in prices for fuel and other commodities; and then in the late 1970s, during Carter's presidency, as major oil exporters reacted to the Iran hostage crisis again to cause gas lines and supply shortages.
''We don't have any such crisis today,'' Carter said, noting that no one has run short of either oil or natural gas although prices have increased markedly.
The only crisis, Carter said, has been with electricity supplies in California, ''where a misguided legislation was put into effect'' deregulating the state's electricity market. He argued that has little to do with oil or with the wildlife refuge in Alaska.
Despite claims by the oil industry that it can develop the refuge without environmental harm, Carter maintains that drilling there, even with today's technology, would ''destroy a precious possession'' that has no equal in North America.
''I've stood in front of the caribou herds,'' Carter said, ''and I've seen the precious and fragile environment out there. It's one of the few remaining places in the Northern Hemisphere where there's such diversity of wildlife.''
''It's no less valuable than Yosemite,'' he said, referring to the national park in California.
Environmentalists said they hope Carter's decision to go public with his opposition will sway sentiment among the people and, more important, among members of Congress, who later this year probably will decide the issue.
Most Democrats and a handful of Republicans have said they would not support a proposal to drill in the refuge, but Carter still is worried. He says the outcome will depend on ''how powerfully persuasive the White House'' becomes in trying to sell the proposal.
''I know from experience: ... if a president really wants something to the abandonment of other priorities he can be very persuasive,'' Carter said.
On the Net: Energy Department's outlook from Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: http://gils.doe.gov:1782/cgi-bin/w3vdkhgw?qryPDFaRT8F--;doecrawl-0116 28
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