Interior Secretary Gale Norton should have known better than to call the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a flat, white nothingness.'' Norton made the comment at a U.S. Senate committee hearing ... as the full chamber was moving toward a vote that would lead to the opening of the coastal plain to oil drilling.
It was terrible timing.
In the chamber Tuesday, the latest attempt to open ANWR fell two votes short of remaining in the national budget resolution. Drilling supporters now must place their slim hopes on a joint conference committee with the House, which has adopted a measure endorsing ANWR drilling.
Both sides acknowledged the Senate vote would be extremely close, which is why Secretary Norton's comment about the value of ANWR appears all the more reckless.
The secretary's lightning-rod words are what appeared high in national news stories and broadcasts. What wavering Republican senator trying to bolster environmental credentials, as the Republican Party itself has been trying to do, would want to be associated with such a sentiment? Lost were Norton's lucid arguments on the need to acquire ANWR's oil.
The Bush administration has periodically argued that ANWR contains little of environmental value. Good politics, however, suggests that the decades-long quest to open a sliver of the refuge must include an acknowledgment that people attach, in varying degrees, ecological and emotional importance to such places. To dismiss them by describing the object of their passion as a wasteland is to deride them as misguided fools.
Further, and specifically in regard to ANWR, describing the coastal plain as an area of nothingness'' undercuts the administration's sound argument that oil drilling can be conducted in an environmentally safe manner, with a small footprint and minimal impact on wildlife. Why else would such an argument be advanced if there were not some acknowledgment that ANWR holds values beyond just that of natural resource extraction?
With several senators under intense pressure from national drilling opponents and not wanting to be painted as insensitive to the environment, especially as they head into an election year, Secretary Norton's comment came at an unfortunate moment.
The logic in favor of opening ANWR was lost, for a moment, in the slip of lips.
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner - March 20
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