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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Budget Watch

Air Date: Week of

Proposed cuts in the federal budget are raising concerns about negative environmental impacts. The budget bills would open more land and coastline to oil and gas drilling. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports from Washington.


GELLERMAN: The U.S. Congress is trying to cut the federal budget, in part, to make up for the tens of billions of dollars spent so far to recover from Hurricane Katrina. To raise revenue, the budget bills would open more land and coastline to oil and gas drilling. But as Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports, there are concerns the move will put environmentally sensitive areas from Alaska to Florida at risk.


YOUNG: Sarah James taps a caribou hide drum and sings just as she and her ancestors in the Gwich’in tribe of Northern Alaska have for centuries, except James is not in northern Alaska. She’s on a noisy street in Washington D.C., just off the Capitol grounds. James has held vigil here for nearly three months, hoping to keep oil drills out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.


JAMES: Singing a song, sing the song for the Refuge to stay that way and polar bears be healthy and caribou—everything that was born there. Because now, it’s maybe the last link of our fight. We don’t know.

YOUNG: For years Congress debated opening the Refuge’s coastal plain to energy production. Now, drilling supporters are close to success, with budget bills that include more than two billion dollars in revenue from the sale of mineral leases in the Refuge. Alaska Republican Senator Ted Stevens says it’s what Alaska wants, even the native villages.

STEVENS: Only one – one – has opposed this. And yet they’re the poster children for all these environmental ads you see. One, the Gwich’in village, opposes this.

YOUNG: Senate Democrats and a few moderate Republicans sought to strip the drilling language, but Stevens’ side narrowly prevailed. That ties the Refuge’s fate to a budget bill which, by Senate rules, cannot be filibustered. Attention now turns to the House of Representatives where a more controversial budget bill targets more than just the Arctic Refuge.

POMBO: It’s not just about opening up Alaska; it’s also about how do we increase domestic production. Alaska’s part of it, the Rocky Mountains are part of it, the deep sea is part of it.

YOUNG: That’s California Republican Congressman Richard Pombo who chairs the House Resources Committee. Pombo’s contribution to the House budget bill would also put more public lands up for sale to mining companies and expand offshore drilling for oil and natural gas. A federal moratorium prohibits new drills off most of the U.S. coast.
That moratorium has had broad political support from coastal states, especially Florida.

Pombo’s proposal would let a state opt out of the moratorium along its coast in return for a share of royalties. It would also allow a state like Florida to veto any drilling within 125 miles of its shores. In a major political coup, Pombo won the support of Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

POMBO: The fact that we have the governor of Florida endorsing the bill and supporting the bill should be a signal to people that this gives them the kind of protection that they need.

YOUNG: But some Florida Republicans still don’t trust the deal. Representative Connie Mack says he sees a big loophole: the bill apparently gives the Interior Secretary the final word on drilling.

MACK: We are not getting anything for that. In other words, we’re not protecting ourselves if the secretary can overturn what we’ve decided to do. And that does not give Florida a strong hand.

YOUNG: Mack says he would have a hard time voting for a budget bill that includes any offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Environmental groups hope those divisions within Republican ranks will help their cause.


YOUNG: Wilderness Society President Bill Meadows is among the environmental leaders
working the halls of the Congress to keep oil rigs out of the Arctic Refuge. Meadows says many moderate Republicans are uneasy with the budget bill’s drilling and budget cut provisions.

MEADOWS: There are a lot of problems with budget reconciliation, and the House of Representatives, for example, is wrestling with how to deal with Medicare, how to deal with Medicaid, how to deal with higher education student aid programs, how do you look at after-school care. So you do end up picking up some interesting coalitions here.

YOUNG: Meadows hopes the disagreement about cuts in social services will doom the budget bill. So does Sarah James who pledges to keep her vigil for the Arctic Refuge, drumming, singing and struggling to be heard over the din of Washington traffic. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.



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