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Faction in Alaska delegation seeks Gore's attention on ANWR

Posted: Sunday, August 13, 2000

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- As Alaska's delegation assembles at the Democratic National Convention on Sunday, a handful of delegates plan to withhold their support for Vice President Al Gore until he listens to their concerns about a centerpiece of the party's environmental agenda -- the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Alaska Democratic Party endorses responsible development of the vast oil reserves on the refuge's coastal plain. But the national platform set for ratification this week opposes any drilling.

Because Alaska's three electoral votes already seem solidly in the Republican column, the faction sees a threat to deny Gore a unanimous nomination as the only way to get his attention.

''It's the only way to have any voice in his policies,'' said Mano Frey, head of the Alaska AFL-CIO and leader of the faction.

Frey said the disaffected delegates hope to meet with Gore, but will settle for a high-level policy adviser in the campaign.

''I don't expect to change his mind as far as ANWR goes, but he needs to know the importance of what that means,'' Frey said.

The Gore campaign said it was unaware of Frey's plan.

''Our policy people are always happy to meet with delegates and members of the party,'' said Maria Meier, the campaign's western field communications director. ''They will be available and happy to meet with people from Alaska to discuss this issue.''

However, Meier said Gore, who has always opposed ANWR development, stands behind his environmental policy.

A similar plan fizzled at the 1996 convention, with Alaska's delegates casting a muted ''aye'' for the platform plan opposing drilling in the refuge.

The refuge, in Alaska's far northeast corner, is the most visible symbol of Alaska's struggles with environmentalists and the federal government over development of federally owned land.

The Clinton administration has refused to allow drilling in the refuge despite pressure from the Republican-led Congress. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt once said his job was to stand at the border with a flaming sword and defend it as a piece of the nation's heritage.

And Gore, who has closer ties to environmentalists than Clinton, is no more likely to open the refuge. That makes others in the delegation dismiss Frey's insurgency as a pipe dream.

''I don't think it's going to make one bit of difference,'' said Marilyn Heiman, a delegate who works as Babbitt's top aide in Alaska. ''We only have three electoral votes.''

Heiman is more concerned about mainstream Democratic issues such as environmental protection and abortion rights.

But many in the delegation who otherwise support Gore are wary of his ties to environmental groups that oppose drilling in the refuge and logging in the Tongass National Forest, which the national platform also opposes.

For some, the enthusiasm politicians in the Lower 48 espouse for Alaska's natural treasures rings hollow.

''I think the Democratic Party is dead wrong on a lot of natural resource issues,'' said Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, an advocate of opening ANWR. ''People want to earn their environmental citizenship at Alaska's expense as they compromise in other places.''

The national party platform's proposed section on environmental protection highlights five areas for protection: the Florida Everglades, the California and Florida coasts, ANWR and the Tongass.

Frey hopes to gain Gore's ear on the Tongass as well. Environmentalists are pushing to expand the Forest Service's ban on road construction in roadless areas to include the vast rainforest, a move that could further hobble the region's ailing timber industry.

But the wildlife refuge remains the biggest bone of contention because of its massive economic potential and its heavy symbolism to environmental groups.

Environmentalists see it as one of the last wild places -- a huge unspoiled expanse where birds nest and caribou bear their calves with little or no interference from humans.

For the oil industry -- and most Alaskans -- ANWR is the holy grail of development prospects, a bonanza that could be tapped without significant environmental damage.

Opening the refuge could mean thousands of jobs for Alaskans and billions of dollars for the state in royalties and taxes.

The U.S. Energy Department estimates the refuge sits atop about 10 billion barrels of recoverable oil that could flow at a peak rate of nearly 2 million barrels a day.

The aging Prudhoe Bay field, about 60 miles west of the ANWR coastal plain, once held an estimated 13 billion barrels of recoverable crude. After nearly a quarter-century of production, it has about 4 billion barrels remaining.



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