Votes over Arctic oil crucial to Senate race
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
By Derrick DePledge
U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka recalls hovering over the remote coastal plain of northeastern Alaska in a helicopter, looking down for the tiny island village of Kaktovik but seeing nothing but ice.
The 1995 trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was memorable for the senator because it was when he promised the Inupiat, the Alaska Natives who live in the village, that he would support oil and natural gas exploration that might help them economically.
Oil companies have wanted to harvest the potentially rich oil fields in portions of the Arctic refuge for more than two decades, but have been stopped by environmentalists who want to preserve the land, saying it is an ecological treasure. The exploration cannot proceed without the approval of Congress, and while lawmakers have come close several times, most Democrats have voted against drilling and blocked it each time.
Akaka, who is of Hawaiian and Chinese ancestry, has sought federal recognition for Hawaiians so they may form their own government and he speaks of the Inupiat in a similar vein.
"It came down to self-determination," the senator explained. "My vote was for the indigenous people of Kaktovik, and not for the oil companies. It's for the people and for a better life for them."
CROSSING THE MAJORITY
Akaka's support for Arctic drilling, by his own admission, is one of the few times he has crossed the majority in his party. His opponent in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, U.S. Rep. Ed Case, is strongly against Arctic drilling and has been given much better marks by environmentalists.
Indigenous rights and environmental protection are fundamental to Hawai'i politics, so the differences between Akaka and Case on Arctic drilling may be among the most important for primary voters. It also cuts against the image of Akaka the liberal and Case the moderate, a reminder that political labels, while sometimes useful, are not absolute.
Case, who grew up on the Big Island, said Arctic drilling should not be about indigenous rights. He asked what would happen if some valuable commodity were found under Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park or in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
"I simply believe there should be some places in this world that should be off limits," he said.
The Arctic refuge spans 19 million acres and has been described by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as unique because ecology and evolution can play out largely free of human manipulation. The refuge links both arctic and sub-arctic ecosystems and is home to caribou, bear and other wildlife.
The federal government has identified about 1.5 million acres along the coastal plain of the refuge for potential oil and natural gas exploration. According to the Congressional Research Service, the government estimates that as much as 11 billion barrels of oil might be available and that production would peak in about 15 to 20 years.
The United States consumes about 7.5 billion barrels of oil a year, but the Bush administration has said that Arctic drilling could help reduce the nation's reliance on foreign oil. The Congressional Budget Office has also estimated that the federal government and Alaska could share more than $5 billion in revenue from auctioning the leases for oil and gas development, annual rental payments and royalties.
The Alaska Federation of Natives, like the Inupiat, supports oil and gas exploration on the refuge and believes it can be managed without damaging the environment. But the Gwich'in Indians, who live along the migratory route of the Porcupine caribou in Alaska and Canada, have opposed exploration as a threat to their indigenous rights. Many Gwich'in depend on caribou for survival and argue that Arctic drilling might disturb the caribou's calving grounds.
The dispute between the Inupiat and Gwich'in has been noticed by many Hawaiian activists, who see parallels to the splintered debate in the Islands over federal recognition.
Some Hawaiian activists who want independence from the United States have said that federal recognition is more about saving federal money for Hawaiian programs than sovereignty. They view Akaka's support for the Inupiat more in the context of oil and the environment than indigenous rights.
"It's a touchy issue. It's one where we're very disappointed in both of our senators because it's just totally inappropriate and it's really not in keeping with many of the environmental considerations they've made previously," said Kai'opua Fyfe, who lives on Kaua'i and is a director of the Koani Foundation, a Hawaiian independence group.
The Gwich'in have been criticized by some Inupiat for hypocrisy because the Gwich'in in Alaska had leased out 1.8 million acres of land for unsuccessful oil and gas exploration in the 1980s. The Gwich'in in Canada have also partnered with oil companies on a new multibillion dollar natural gas pipeline in the Northwest Territories.
BETTER QUALITY OF LIFE
Jade Danner, the vice president of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, lived among the Inupiat for 25 years and believes oil exploration would improve their quality of life. Danner had a brief financial contract with Arctic Power, an Alaska group that advocates drilling, to provide information about drilling to Hawaiians and to defend Akaka from criticism in the Islands.
Danner said she understands the environmental concerns about Arctic drilling but believes the Inupiat should help decide what happens on the refuge.
"In my mind, the ANWR issue is an issue of self-determination," she said.
Akaka's stance has cost him among many environmentalists. The League of Conservation Voters, in a scorecard on environmental votes last year, gave Akaka a 75 percent score, compared with 89 percent for Case. The Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund gave Akaka a 50 percent rating, compared with 100 percent for Case.
Jeff Mikulina, the director of the Sierra Club's Hawai'i chapter, said Arctic drilling has become a "line in the snow" for many environmentalists who fear that if exploration is allowed on the refuge it might be easier to rationalize drilling in other unspoiled areas. "Most folks worry that if that goes, nothing is sacred," he said.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans have majorities in the House and Senate to approve Arctic drilling but do not have the 60 votes necessary to break Senate filibusters.
Republicans tried to attach drilling rights to budget, energy and defense bills last year, and were finally blocked by a filibuster by Senate Democrats. Republicans are trying to get Arctic drilling into the budget bill again this year, where it is harder to block because the budget is not subject to filibuster.
"It's one of those issues where it's easy for people to get blinded by short-term gain over long-term destruction," said Case, who added that he resents what he called the strong-arm tactics of energy interests and their allies. "I don't want to make the same mistakes of the past 50 years."
Alaska and Hawai'i, the last two states admitted into the union, have often been intertwined in Congress. U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawai'i, are close friends who have leveraged their seniority and influence to help bring federal money and projects back to their home states. Akaka was close to Alaska's Republican governor, Frank Murkowski, when Murkowski served in the Senate.
In a kind of informal, non-contiguous state caucus, the senators have often looked out for each other's interests. Inouye and Akaka were among four Democrats who tried to help Stevens break the filibuster on Arctic drilling in December — a day Stevens called "the saddest day of my life."
Stevens and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the Alaska governor's daughter, are co-sponsors of Akaka's federal recognition bill and will likely be counted on to help fight Republican holds on the bill in a vote expected in June.
But Akaka had supported Arctic drilling long before the federal recognition bill was first introduced in 2000. He said his support will continue because of his commitment to the Inupiat, not because of his relationship with Stevens or Murkowski.
"They said they wanted to have the drilling go forth in that area so that they could have resources that can change their quality of life," the senator said. "That was my promise to them."
Reach Derrick DePledge at firstname.lastname@example.org.