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Fierce Fight Over Arctic, Fuel Economy
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The Planet
Fierce Fight Over Arctic, Fuel Economy

By Jenny Coyle

It's not like the Sierra Club held back.

Executive Director Carl Pope had the phone against his ear for hours, putting pressure on swing voters in Congress. Grassroots activists bombarded their representatives with postcards, faxes, phone calls and letters, urging them to vote the right way. Club lobbyists rushed through the halls of the capitol and scurried to set up last-minute meetings. Phone-bankers called Club members to stimulate phone calls and faxes to scores of House members. Lands Team Director Melanie Griffin went head-to-head with the Teamsters in a debate before the Democratic Caucus.

And yet, just before leaving for the August recess, the U.S. House of Representatives squandered an opportunity to put the nation on a path to a clean, safe, reliable energy future. Instead, by a 206 to 222 margin, members passed an energy bill that forked over huge subsidies to the coal and nuclear industries and made only token investments in energy conservation and renewables.

Most heartbreaking, however, was the bill's provision to allow gas and oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and its failure to bring the fuel-economy standards of light trucks and sport-utility vehicles on par with passenger cars.

Debbie Sease"We went in at the beginning of this year aware that the House was going to be the harder floor to win," said Debbie Sease, the Club's legislative director in Washington, D.C., who was in the thick of it before the August recess. "As public opinion against drilling in the Arctic mounted, some began to think we couldn't lose in the House, but we knew it was going to be tough, particularly when our opponents launched an even fiercer campaign than we'd imagined."

Or as Pope put it, "Big Oil called out its big guns and its big money on this vote."

Not all labor organizations favored drilling (it was opposed, for instance, by 62 percent of the Service Employees International Union, the largest union in the AFL-CIO), but the Teamsters and the building trades unions fought hard, repeating industry's inflated claims that allowing drilling in the Arctic would result in 750,000 jobs.

And then, when it came to the vote on corporate average fuel economy (or CAFE) standards, any congressmember with an auto manufacturer in his or her district felt the squeeze from the auto lobby.

"This was a hard vote to get, and we knew that," said Sease. "But remember that it was the first time there was a floor vote to revise the standards in 25 years - and that is progress."

"There were 160 representatives who voted in favor of new standards, and those are votes to curb global warming, save consumers money at the gas pump and cut our dependence on foreign oil," said Daniel Becker, director of the Club's Global Warming and Energy Team.

Some good news came in before the House and Senate recessed for the summer. Both passed versions of the Interior funding bill that included language to protect national monuments from new mining or oil and gas development, and to ensure that new mining regulations are not delayed by the Bush administration. The House also prohibited new oil and gas leasing off the coast of Florida, though the Senate didn't.

Also, the Senate voted to preserve $25 million in enforcement funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, while the House voted to cut that amount. Both adopted slightly different amendments to prevent administrative delays of the rules to get arsenic out of drinking water.

As The Planet went to press, these and other issues were on the agenda to be worked out in conference when Congress returned Sept. 5.

While Senate action on an energy bill is expected in September, there is always a chance, Sease said, that the process could drag on into next year. And action cannot be delayed on the 13 appropriations bills that fund the federal government. In the past, these have been plastered with anti-environmental riders.

Take Action: The timing may be tricky for Planet readers who want to influence their senators and representatives: The session was slated to end Oct. 5, so some issues discussed here may already be settled. For up-to-date information, check our Take Action pages.

If there's still time to act, Sease strongly urges activists to call their senators and representatives and urge them to do two things: First, ask them to support an energy bill that bars drilling in the Arctic Refuge, increases CAFE standards, increases our use of renewable sources and energy efficiency, cleans up existing power plants and cuts subsidies for the oil, gas and nuclear industries. Second, tell them to oppose any anti-environmental riders on appropriations bills.


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