A Response to the Politics of the ANWR

A stakeholder analysis of the debate over oil extraction in the Arctic national wildlife refuge reveals most stakeholders reside in one of two main camps of ideology and political motivation found in many cases concerning the environment and natural resources: environmentalists vs pro-development advocates and cornucopians. Specifically, parties interested in taking advantage of the ANRW for oil and gas revenue were pitted against those who would have nothing but preservation for the massive area. This case includes many unique dynamics simultaneously set it apart, and overlap the case with other environmental debates and controversies which have played out in the latter half of the 20th century and continue today.

Compared to other environmental debates playing out at the time, the pro-environment side held disproportionate strengths in the ANWR case. For much of the battle, environmentalists had the media on its side thanks to their ability to provoke deep symbolism response among the American people. The iconic and vanishing polar bear became a character in conversations, but the regions biodiversity supplied many other characters which helped to attract the national public’s sympathy in a local battle. Journalists jumped on the refuge to display their poetic prowess, and so many audiences received a romantic and beautiful narrative of the landscape – “America’s last wilderness” and remaining wild frontier.         Environmentalists were aided by the fact that preservation is an all or nothing endeavor – while oil interests were expected to beg for middle ground, the expectation was for environmentalists to accept nothing less than nothing. Similarly, the health of the ecosystem seemed to be so fragile that it was able to help frame the decisions as all or nothing for environmentalists. What could have been a mild environmental cost of extraction in more temporal climates would likely have a larger or longer effect in the ANWR’s delicate biospheres.  A strength unique to environmentalist stakeholders in this debate was that they had history on their side. The history of ANRW’s preservation as a status quo made their values American, something that had to be fought against – rather than fought for. The legislative complexity of any maneuver to open up the refuge has been cited as an advantage for the environmentalists. Instead of one committee, appropriate legislation required the passage of many before it could hit the floor, which clearly set up more obstacles for such legislation, but also dissuaded support.

Opportunities were plentiful outside noble and endangered species. The repeated oil catastrophes and calamities which spread throughout the years since the ANILCA’s passage served as framing events for environmentalists to re-collect the public’s support, invalidate opponents and highlight the importance of their position. Some of the largest threats which almost proved the detriment to ANWR’s preservation were subtle amendments and riders which lacked public salience. By staying under the rug on both the floor legislators were able to pass ANWR extraction ride with minimal constituent attention on the 1996 budget – until Clinton vetoed the bill.

Correspondingly, an analysis of the case using SWOT shows that industry and extraction interests were disadvantaged compared to their positions in other environmental debates playing out across the country. The preliminary advantage given to the pro-extraction party was the clauses in ANILCA which provided compromises for oil extraction, and the reality that oil and gas leases existed on many refuges – 105 in 2003. The versatility of utility oil and gas extraction provided a strength to this group in that it attracted powerful and wealthy stakeholders – oil and gas industries, and important politicians – groups like the Inupiat Eskimos also made the group diverse.

This case shows the malleability of science and knowledge production in how even though science clearly opposed cornocopians, they were able to pick and choose evidence so that they too could distribute scientific knowledge in polished reports and literature. An example of how wealth and capital can be used as an opportunity to turn threats and weaknesses into strengths. An opportunity seized by this group was to intertwine the country’s narrative of incased economic success and military security with one of extraction in what they portrayed as an uninspiring and barren landscape. Their construction for this narrative provided always a steady trickle of at least one framing event to fall back on: whether it was a recession, unemployment, the energy crisis or instability in the Middle East. Over its timeline, thanks to what was a generally conservative administration and the constant presence of pro-extraction legislators the group was advantaged with plenty of policy windows. Unfortunately for them, weaknesses in public salience and legislative complexity always blocked success.

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