Coleman must stand strong

The senator is wavering on ANWR: Can Minnesotans trust his promises?

According to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s Web site, the refuge “continues to exemplify the legal definition of wilderness – an area ‘where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.’ ” If the budget reconciliation bill the U.S. Senate just passed through committee makes it to President George W. Bush’s desk, this statement will no longer stand true.

Minnesotans have their Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, in part to thank for this risk. Coleman’s 2002 campaign promise to vote against drilling in ANWR is in serious danger. Congress has buried the drilling measure into a budget bill that only requires a simple majority to pass and cannot be filibustered.

Coleman has strongly hinted that he will back out of his promise because he has put “so much effort” into the budget bill itself. But he might end up holding a key vote on this bill, making his campaign promise all the more important. But why?

While only one endangered species – the spectacled eider – ever inhabits the refuge, the 19.6 million-acre area contains the greatest variety of plants and animals within the Arctic Circle. It is a biodiversity hotspot. This must not be threatened by the prospect of producing enough oil to, on its own, supply the United States’ gluttonous demand for only six months.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton testified in 2003 that the proposed legislation would impose the strictest standards ever required of producers regarding environmental issues, and that comparing the ANWR coastal development to the damaging oil production occurring on the North Slope was irrelevant because technology has improved so much since then. But realistically, even minor disturbances and minimal infrastructure in a fragile ecosystem have damaging effects beyond speculation.

Drilling in ANWR would cause more environmental damage than is worth a six-month reprieve from redoubling oil conservation efforts and solving the real problem – Americans’ far-too-heavy dependence on oil in general. Once again, Republicans look to fix a symptom, not a problem. Coleman has the opportunity to break that tradition if he sticks to his word when this vote comes up.