Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Big Oil Eyes Rape of Arctic Wilderness

Precedent could lead to offshore drilling in New England

By Rebecca Pollard

APRIL 10, 2000:  The battle is on to save Alaska's coastal wilderness. Alaskan representatives in Congress have introduced a rider to the current budget bill that would allow the 19-million-acre Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to be opened to oil drilling. This has profound implications for the areas holding oil-rich reserves off New England's coast.

The Boston Phoenix recently spoke with James McCaffrey, president of the Massachusetts chapter of the Sierra Club, the fourth-largest Sierra Club chapter in the country, about the Alaskan drilling crisis, rising gasoline prices, and the changing face of environmental activism in America.


Q: We've been hearing about the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge issue for a long time. Why has the fight to save the area dragged on?

A: As you know, drilling in the Alaska coastal plain is not a new proposal. During every congressional session since 1995, oil-industry lobbyists have tried to pass a law to open the area to oil exploration, either as a bill or as a rider -- an add-on to a bill that isn't voted on directly. Thankfully, Clinton has vowed to block any effort to open the region to drilling until the day he leaves office. That day is coming fast, so we're trying to do everything we can to educate the public on the issue. The fact is that until the US government deems the area off-limits to oil developers by making it a national park, this issue will crop up every congressional session. Our next president may not be so sympathetic to the issue.


Q: But what about the rising cost of oil? Doesn't the oil industry want to drill in ANWR to increase domestic supply and reduce dependence on foreign oil?

A: That's certainly one of the myths that proponents of drilling have used to persuade the public that the federal government needs to open up ANWR to drilling. But it's just a smoke screen. The US is not experiencing a domestic oil crisis; we just have a gluttonous appetite for oil. The oil industry wants to drill in ANWR because they see money to be made there and, quite naturally, they want to make it.

Nobody really knows for sure how much oil ANWR holds -- and, unfortunately, it will require a significant amount of drilling and testing to find out. Once they start exploration, they'll have already destroyed a lot of the environment. The US Geological Survey has predicted that ANWR holds about nine billion gallons of oil. Based on US oil-consumption patterns, one can expect that much oil to last for about 200 days. Of course, you do have to look at it in perspective. The oil supply at Prudhoe Bay, which is located just west of ANWR, was predicted to last several hundred days, and it's supplied oil for 18 years. The point is, we can't predict how much oil there is, and whether or not it will be worth the environmental destruction that will most certainly occur if we explore ANWR.

As for oil prices, the industry is not concerned with lowering prices; it's concerned with finding and selling more oil. The Republican congressional majority wants to open [up the area to drilling], claiming we need it for domestic supply. At the same time, they're pushing for bills that will allow them to sell oil to Japan, and they're lobbying for lower fuel-efficiency standards for American vehicles. So, we need to drill in ANWR because we're running out of domestically produced gas for our gas-guzzling SUVs, which are exempt from the fuel-efficiency standards. It's just not logical.


Q: Alaska is a long way from Massachusetts, but the Sierra Club has really pushed the ANWR issue right here in New England. What does one region have to do with the other?

A: Actually it's not that far at all, and what people don't realize is that New England is dealing with some of the same issues on Georges Bank. Georges Bank, which is right off the coast of Maine, is one of the most productive marine regions in the world, and, like ANWR, it's not protected from oil exploration. Well, Georges Bank receives slightly more protection than ANWR; it's under a joint US-Canadian drilling moratorium. But that moratorium requires continuous renewal and attention. Canada just renewed the drilling moratorium on their portion of Georges Bank because a scientific panel found that drilling greatly disturbs the ecosystem of the ocean out there. The Canadian renewal places a lot of pressure on the US to take the same stance. But it's really subject to the political whim of whoever is in office. If you look at the bigger picture, it all comes back to the need and desire to drill in environmentally sensitive areas, based on the consumer-driven demand for oil.


Q: Still, both of these areas are far removed from the daily lives of most people in New England. Why should we care about Georges Bank or ANWR?

A: The more immediate reason is that these natural areas, and the species they contain, are intrinsically linked to our own survival. We are trying to be practical here. This is not a matter of "save it because it's pretty," or, though some may believe it to be a spiritually valid reason, "save it because it's there."

We know that clearing rain forest affects the oxygen supply on the planet. But just because we have not yet scientifically documented what might happen if we destroy that last bit of wilderness in Alaska, that's no reason to develop it anyway. Erosion from deforestation has caused bad flooding problems in the Amazon basin; people are quite literally flooded out of their homes. No one predicted that would be an outcome of cutting down the forest, and no one knows what may happen if we destroy ANWR or Georges Bank. This is really about self-preservation in the end.


Q: I would bet that most people don't think of environmentalism as a form of self-preservation. Sounds like you'd need to change some cultural perceptions of the movement if you want people to see it that way.

A: I don't know if that's true. First of all, I really don't believe that people are apathetic to the issues. Everyone feels how over-dependence on automobiles degrades our quality of life. Just ask anyone who's been sitting in traffic for an hour breathing exhaust. Chances are that person will be pretty pissed off about it; they'll feel like they've wasted an hour and will have a headache from inhaling gas fumes. And now everyone is talking about sprawl. Sprawl is fueled by an automobile-dependent society. It's that simple. I think people are starting to realize that sprawl and traffic congestion are, in fact, environmental issues.

But you have to be careful about blaming individual motorists. We can't fault people for driving everywhere they go, because the alternatives simply are not there. And we are starting to feel it. This isn't the culture's fault.


Q: So whose fault is it?

A: It is clearly the fault of state and federal governments, because they have failed to take any real leadership on transportation policy. I've been saying all along that there's been a state and federal disinvestment in alternative forms of transportation, particularly the federal government. And the clearest example of this is T21, the Transportation Equity Act of May 1998. T21 allocated $173 billion for highway development, and $41 billion for what they call "transit." "Transit" is a misleading term. It refers to buses and light rail, but, as you've seen in Boston, the state likes to remove light rail to put in bus lines. They've exchanged rail for bus on Centre Street in Jamaica Plain, and they've done it on the Washington Street corridor. Buses are much less efficient than rail. Most still run on diesel fuel. They're overcrowded and slow, they lead to traffic congestion, they don't give people an incentive to get out of their cars.

T21 allocated only $300 million for rail development for the next six years. But it gets worse. The highway lobby was so successful in making sure rail funding got slighted that they even blocked our last-ditch efforts to increase funding to Amtrak. The Sierra Club lobbied to make highway funds flexible so they could be used for rail. We figured if a state couldn't use all of their exorbitant highway budget, they could spend the excess on rail or some other alternative. Well, we got the flexible funding into the bill, but at the last minute Congress, spurred by auto lobbyists, exempted Amtrak from receiving funding. Can you believe it?

One of the things we need to do is get the hands of the highway lobby off the throat of America. Anything that we can do to get people out of their cars and into some other mode of transportation directly and absolutely impacts what happens on the ANWR and on Georges Bank. That is what they want to do up there: drill for more gasoline to put in our cars. It's not as far removed as it seems. And we see evidence of it right here in Boston.


Q: You're fighting an uphill battle. Americans love their cars.

A: Of course Americans love their cars. They don't have any viable alternative. And the Massachusetts government is making sure that they won't have any alternatives soon. The missing link in the rail system that would connect northern New England with the rest of the country happens to be right here in Boston. Not so coincidentally, we also have a major highway project going on called the Big Dig. The Big Dig project originally included plans to create the North-South Rail Link [which would link North and South Stations] in order to mitigate some of the clean-air impacts that the highway-widening project will cause. But due to a lack of vision, they decided to take it out of the plan, once again eliminating an option for people. That's disinvestment in our city and in viable transportation systems.

At the Sierra Club, we are real rail advocates because of a couple of different facts related to how trains move people and goods. It's common sense that you can squeeze a lot more people into a rail car than into an automobile. What is not always obvious to people is that a rail system is flexible; if you need to add occupancy you add another car, not another lane. That is a huge difference. Most people don't make that connection. Two tracks of rail carry the same amount of people as 16 lanes of highway. Highway encourages sprawl, but rail concentrates urban development. Any way you look at it, rail is the most sustainable way to get around.


Q: I'm still skeptical that you'll get people out of their cars just by offering an alternative. It seems like Americans are choosing bigger and more inefficient vehicles, despite concerns over global warming and rising gas prices. How does the SUV vogue fit into the picture?

A: There's no denying that cars are a rite of passage in America. That can change, however; culture is subject to trends. I realize the automobile is not going to go away anytime soon, but it does have the potential to become more efficient. The Sierra Club just gave an award to Honda for developing their dual-mode clean-air vehicle -- the first award we've ever given to a car company. They've invested a tremendous amount of money into developing cleaner vehicles. Meanwhile, Ford is investing in developing their Excursion SUV, which we like to call the Ford "Valdez"; Chevy has their Suburban, which we call the "Subdivision." These things are giants, and on the urban street they get something like six to seven miles per gallon. Now you have to have one just to be safe on the road. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. If everyone drove around in Volkswagen Bugs you wouldn't need an SUV to feel safe.

The fact that gas is still cheaper in America than anywhere else in the world has supported the SUV trend. People are complaining about the cost of gas, but look what they're driving! They don't seem all that concerned about saving money at the pump. All of this, everything we're talking about, is connected to why people want to destroy areas like ANWR and Georges Bank. These are all the same issues.


Q: In the past six months we've seen two major protests with environmental underpinnings -- first in Seattle, against the World Trade Organization, and last week in Boston, against the biotechnology-industry conference. Do you think people are starting to pay more attention to the issues?

A: I can't think of when we've had such a strong, clear indication that people are starting to take notice of environmental issues again. I don't think people were [at the Biodevastation rally] because they are afraid of two-headed sheep. I think they were there because they're scared of what is going to happen to their quality of life if corporations control their farms and their food.

My challenge to people now is for them to take responsibility for their own consumption patterns. They need to know what they're purchasing and what they're putting in their bodies and whether there is an alternative. Above and beyond holding signs and shouting, people can use their power as individual consumers to change what is going on in the industry. Still, it was encouraging to see so many people out there, and I hope that people are starting to make the connection.


Q: At the same time, the environmental scene in Boston looks pretty grim. The recycling rate is one of the lowest in the country; people are afraid to bike in the streets. What is the future of environmentalism here?

A: Boston is not an environmental city, from the most basic level of the lack of trash receptacles on the streets to the fact that we have the largest highway public-works project in the world. And we have a mayor who seems unable to forward an agenda that reaches beyond the parochial view. We've taken strides to clean up the harbor and the river. But the city itself is not particularly friendly if you don't want to be in a car. The [subway] system is antiquated. Cambridge has made some strides, putting in bike lanes, but they haven't made a huge impact. But it's not that people are apathetic. As I said before, it's partly because they don't have a choice. The city doesn't make it easy or economical to recycle.

Part of the problem also is that people really think the major environmental problems have been solved. It's like with the whales. There was a huge outcry against whaling in the '70s and '80s, and a widely publicized international whaling ban. Everyone was talking about whales. You can ask anyone in Massachusetts, and I guarantee you'll be told the whales are saved. Few realize that the world's most endangered whale, the North Atlantic right whale, lives in Massachusetts waters and it's going extinct. There's only 300 of them left.


Q: It seems as if people don't identify environmental problems because they just don't have all of the information. Do you believe the media are doing their job to get the word out about environmental issues?

A: The environmental movement has always been at odds with the mainstream press. There is a certain kind of story that the mainstream press wants to sell: it's got to be fresh and new and easy to understand. Environmental stories are incredibly complex and sort of bubble under the currents for years. As environmentalists, we are constantly challenged with making issues newsworthy. The northern right whale is a case in point. Here we have evidence the Endangered Species Act is not working, and no one from the mainstream press has really taken notice. The North-South Rail Link has been hard because there's nothing really new going on with it. There's no funding corruption scandal; they're just not building it.

We've known for a long time that the media are not going to be our best vehicle for educating people. What really has to happen is that people need to make the connection for themselves that their quality of life depends on the environment. As we gain population, this will inevitably happen. As you saw with the biotech protest and in Seattle, it's starting to happen.


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