WASHINGTON — The scene on Capitol lawn yesterday was a cross between pep rally and press conference, a sea of blue T-shirts, picket signs and grown men dressed like polar bears, as nearly 3,000 activists lobbied for the preservation of Alaska’s North Slope.
Protesters from all corners of the country — including a bus load of about 50 students from Yale — converged on the nation’s capital Tuesday to raise awareness of the new federal budget that allows for oil drilling at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The rally comes as the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the nation’s oil and gas supplies have rekindled the national debate on energy policy just over a month after President Bush signed a major bill on the subject into law.
The rally was designed to put constituents in touch with potential swing votes in Congress — senators and representatives whose votes could determine the fate of the controversial budget. The day’s events drew several Democratic political stars: environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and U.S. Sens. John Kerry ’66, Joseph Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67 and Hillary Rodham Clinton LAW ’73. Two Republicans, Sen. Lincoln Chafee and former Congressman Tom Evans, also spoke at the rally, where the speakers touched on themes of global warming, alternative energy, faith-based environmental stewardship, the hurricane aftermath along the Gulf Coast and the war in Iraq.
Student lobbyist Irene Scher ’08 led the Yale contingent and was one of three young people — an elementary school student, a middle school student — who spoke at the rally before the politicians took the stage.
“As my peers and I have turned 18, we have begun to vote and soon we will all be your constituents also,” Scher said at the rally. “To all those votes not yet decided in Congress, please remember that you have an unparalleled opportunity. Vote for a paradigm shift. Set the precedent that under any circumstance where a more sustainable environmental solution exists that we will move forward. Let today be the day that we begin to lead, so that the leaders of the older generation may begin to follow.”
The Yale students rallied in Washington yesterday after caravaning with a bus load of Fairfield residents for the trip. Yoona Kim ’08 said the possibilities of drilling in Alaska are “terrifying.”
“Congressional approval to drill in the ANWR would set a precedent that would prompt violations of other national treasures,” Kim said.
Proponents of the nation’s new energy plan say increasing oil production in Alaska will ease the burden on consumers and help prevent future energy crises, such as the one following Hurricane Katrina. Some lawmakers have called for a second energy bill to address the vulnerabilities left in Katrina’s wake.
Republican Sen. Pete Domenici, chair of the Senate Energy Committee and a chief architect of this summer’s legislation, recently told The Washington Post that the country needs to address these energy concerns.
“Hurricane Katrina exposed the harsh reality that we have been skating on thin ice when it comes to this country’s energy concentrations on the Gulf Coast,” Domenici told the newspaper.
At Tuesday’s rally, Clinton said the nation needs “a call to purpose” regarding energy policy.
“I think that $65-a-barrel makes it clearer than ever that drilling in the arctic cannot and will not solve our energy problems,” Clinton said. “It makes no sense to respond to a disaster in the gulf by making a disaster in Alaska.”
The senator from New York and potential presidential candidate added that the drilling would be ineffective in any case.
“If Congress were to approve drilling tomorrow, the first oil wouldn’t flow for seven to 12 years,” Clinton said, citing findings by a U.S. Geographical Survey.
The USGS estimated that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has only six months worth of oil that will take two decades to retrieve.
Kennedy also stressed the economic futility of North Slope drilling.
“If we get 100 percent of the oil out of ANWR, that is 0.2 percent of global reserves,” he said. “It will reduce the price of gas at the pump by 1 cent per gallon 20 years from now. That is not a national energy policy.”
Frances Beinecke ’71 FES ’74, a member of the School of Management’s advisory board and the executive director of the National Resource Defense Council, one of the organizations engaged in the Arctic Refuge Action Coalition, called on Americans to oppose oil drilling in Alaska.
“Our job is to sound the alarm and build overwhelming pro-Arctic pressure from millions of Americans over the next critical weeks,” Beinecke said in a written statement distributed at the rally.
The NRDC cited one poll that reports that over 70 percent of Americans oppose the drilling.
Scher said she was pleased to give students the chance to travel to Washington for the rally and to meet members of Congress.
“I was bothered by the fact that last year I saw very little environmental activism outside the Yale community,” Scher, an environmental studies major with experience in environmental lobbying, said in an interview.
Funding from the Sierra Club and the Yale Student Environmental Coalition paid for the two buses. Students paid $10 a head and left New Haven at 3 a.m. in order to reach Washington in time for the 10:30 a.m. rally.