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Societal Implications - Alaskan Environmentalists



To a certain extent, many Alaskans, are "environmentalists." This largest subset of the general population includes men and women of every ethnicity and religion who recycle, teach their children not to litter, and help protect the environment in small ways. A smaller portion takes a more active role in environmental protection. Most of these individuals participate in environmental activities while showing respect for the law. Only a small number of environmentalists go to the extreme of breaking the law to "fight" for what they believe, yet this small sample has given a bad reputation to the entire environmentalist movement (Whitehurst, Jr., 2002). The news media's coverage of the outrageous and dangerous activities of the most demonstrative activists has formed an incorrect stereotype of a tree-hugging, dirt-loving green freak as the prime example of an environmentalist.

In recent years, the environmental movement has become slightly more radical. Clinton's election in 1992 led to a decrease in private funding for most groups because the Democratic president was expected to adopt a more liberal environmental policy. To deal with this financial crisis, green groups became dependent on foundation grants from organizations supporting a harder, more extreme environmental line. This in turn meant the environmental groups adopted the donating group's more extreme stance. The Bush administration will therefore have to deal with more aggressive environmental interest groups than did his predecessor's (Thoreau Institute, 2001).



General estimates based on informational interviews conclude that roughly three to five percent of Alaskans are registered environmentalists. Surveys suggest that somewhere between twenty and thirty percent of Alaskans support the environment, but the majority of opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) comes from outside the state (Defenders of Wildlife, 2003). It has been found that more than half of Americans do not want drilling in ANWR, which means that Alaskans are actually more supportive of drilling than the rest of the nation. This drilling issue has become a focal point for several vocal green organizations, but the majority are not specifically Alaskan in composition. One group web site commented that "opposition to ANWR oil exploration is one of those rare issues where you can find consensus among all or most environmental groups" (Michaels, 2001).

Focusing in on the groups that are based in Alaska, several general trends can be discerned. These groups are closely intertwined and cooperative in nature; they coordinate local, state, and national events to raise awareness about the issue; they are not solely concerned with the issue of drilling in ANWR; and they are typically privately funded (Scanalon, 2003). Political and corporate campaigns are being waged simultaneously, and groups are urging their members and other concerned citizens to write their representatives in Congress and the heads of the oil companies (SaveTheArctic.com, 2003). Very few of these groups currently have a plan for what course they would pursue if drilling was allowed in ANWR, but several have said that some sort of litigation would be forthcoming. Since an Environmental Impact Statement must be written in a process which requires public input before any drilling can start, these groups would definitely use that time to input their opinions on the issue and slow the start of drilling.

The reality is that these groups are not planning a backup because they believe there is "a lot of momentum behind the movement to keep the oil companies out of the area." Since this issue seems to be more about politics than the actual oil that can be taken from the site, some Alaskan environmental groups have stated that they would not accept a compromise on this issue. Opening even a small portion would make the whole area vulnerable, since drilling in only one part would not be economical (Scanalon, 2003).

Another consideration to take into account is the moral support that the environmental groups have recently acquired. Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Evangelical Christian leaders formed the National Religious Partners for the Environment, and recent advertisements cosponsored by the National Council of Churches and the Sierra Club say that "caring for creation" is incompatible with Bush's oil drilling proposal (N/A, 2003).

A final consideration is an economic one based on the way green groups view the public lands they are trying to protect. Examples can be found where environmental groups allowed oil drilling in lands they owned to raise money to support efforts to protect other lands that were considered "more valuable." By opposing drilling in ANWR, environmental groups can capitalize on contributions while losing nothing (Lee, 2002).



Environmentalists will not support any amount of drilling in ANWR. The heart of their argument is that "you can't have development and wilderness ­ it's either one or the other. No matter how well done, oil development will industrialize a unique, wild area that is the biological heart of the refuge" (SaveTheArctic.com, 2003). Groups have helped build awareness and resistance to oil drilling in the refuge. If drilling is allowed, costly litigation will be pursued and the issue will not be dropped for a long period of time. This litigation will be similar to that filed after drilling was allowed in Prudhoe Bay or after the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was built, but it will be larger and more intense in scope since more groups are focused on this current issue. To limit the litigation the environmental groups will pursue, the method of drilling that least impacts the environment must be chosen. Drilling itself may actively strengthen the support of the environmental groups, though a perceived improper response to drilling may conversely injure the environmental movement in Alaska.

The lack of compromise that is inherently present in these groups' beliefs makes it easy to see what they want but almost impossible to fit them into an encompassing solution that results in the drilling of ANWR, even drilling that is "environmentally-friendly." Still, the effect these groups will have on the time it takes to actually start drilling, the political and economic cost of their litigation, and their ability to dissipate information about the negative environmental impacts of drilling to the public must not be ignored.


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