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Interior Budget Restarts Arctic Oil Drilling Debate

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, February 3, 2004 (ENS) - The White House has again asked the U.S. Congress to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling and use the profits to increase funding for renewable energy programs. The request is part of the Interior Department's 2005 budget - a spending plan conservationists say fails to adequately protect the nation's wild places or wildlife.

"This budget is even more out of touch with reality than previous offerings," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington based national advocacy group.

Oil drilling in the Arctic refuge has emerged as one of the most contentious issues in environmental politics.

It has narrowly been rejected several times by the U.S. Senate and six of the seven remaining Democratic presidential candidates - all but Al Sharpton - have gone on record as opposing the policy.

Schlickeisen says the President's request ignores "the clear will of the American people, who do not want to trash one of the wildest places left in America." rig

Opponents say drilling and ANWR do not mix. (Photo courtesy Arctic Power)
But the inclusion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) reflects an Interior Department budget that aims to ease regulations on public lands, increase domestic energy production and shift conservation efforts from the federal government to states and the private sector.

"President Bush's goal - and our goal at Interior- is to empower citizens to do what the government cannot do alone," said Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton. "Citizen-stewards embody the President's vision of a new environmentalism, one built upon principles of entrepreneurship, local action and respect for private property."

The administration's $11 billion request for the Interior Department holds spending essentially flat compared with 2004 appropriations for the department's eight bureaus - the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Reclamation, Mineral Management Services, Office of Surface Mining (OSM) and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Norton said the department's budget will help "develop stronger conservation partnerships with states, tribes, local communities, and citizens to develop healthy lands, thriving communities, and dynamic economies."

Norton highlighted the $53 million increase in funding for the OSM to support the reauthorization of the Abandoned Mine Lands program, which funds state efforts to reclaim abandoned mines.

The Interior Secretary said this would expedite the program and further a plan "to eliminate all significant health and safety problems associated with abandoned coal mines within 25 years."

Norton also highlighted a 400 percent increase in funding - bringing the total to $209 million - for a program that assists conservation efforts by farmers and ranchers. bush

Critics say the Bush administration is undermining federal laws that safeguard the environment. Here the President walks with Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton. (Photo courtesy the White House)
The Interior budget earmarks $660.6 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. When combined with funds for similar programs at the U.S. Forest Service, the $900.2 million request for the fund "helps meet the President's pledge to "fully fund [it]," Norton said.

Critics see that as misleading because the administration has put other programs under the umbrella of the fund to prop up its total funding level of $900 million.

Only $314 million of the total is available for federal land acquisition and state grants through the Park Service, which is the Land and Water Conservation Fund's original purpose, conservationists say.

"The President realizes that people like local conservation of wildlife and habitat, and has gone to great lengths once again to pretend that he is funding the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund, even though it's a shell game," Schlickeisen said. "This budget is a lot of greenwashing, but not much green."

The $2.36 billion Park Service budget includes an additional $77 million to fund park maintenance. Bush officials say this keeps the President on track to meet a campaign pledge to spend $4.9 billion on the maintenance backlog over four years.

Conservationists say this funding level continues the agency's historic underfunding - estimates find the Park Service operates with an annual $600 million shortfall - and contend the administration has made little genuine progress on the maintenance backlog.

National Parks Conservation Association President Thomas Kiernan said the budget "illustrates the President's personal dedication to the national parks, but does not fully deliver on his promises."

The Interior budget also includes $311 million for hazardous fuels reduction projects to reduce the threat and harmful impact of wildfires.

Critics of the Bush administration say officials are far too keen to give away natural resources on public lands to extractive industries. They point to a proposal in the budget that would expand the authority of the BLM to sell public lands under its jurisdiction and use the funds for infrastructure maintenance. wolfgrass

The Bush administration's decision to press forward with downlisting the gray wolf has outraged conservationists. (Photo by John and Karen Hollingsworth courtesy Fish and Wildlife Service)
The budget request increases cooperative conservation grants for endangered species by $8 million, but cuts funding for the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by $7.5 million compared to 2004 appropriations.

Conservationists believe the administration has no intent of following the ESA and say it is deliberately underfunding the law.

Flat funding levels for the agencies charged with protecting the nation's wildlife and wild places just does not cut it, says Bonnie Galvin, director of budget and appropriations programs at The Wilderness Society.

"In good times and in bad, we have always invested in the places and wildlife that make America special," she said. "This budget is out of touch with mainstream American values and priorities. Americans want and deserve a consistent commitment to conservation spending."