Sunday, November 19, 2017

Senate May Approve Drilling In Alaskan Wilderness With Tax Bill

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
Getty Images/Getty Images

November 18, 2017

By Scott Detrow

For all the negative headlines that 2017 have generated, Republicans are on the cusp of accomplishing two major policy goals that have eluded them for decades, at the same time.

The Senate could soon approve oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with its bill to overhaul the nation's tax code.

ANWR has long held an outsized symbolic role in the tug-of-war between environmental protection and the desire to increase domestic oil and gas drilling. In that regard, you could argue, it was the original Keystone XL Pipeline — an issue activists on both sides could rally, fundraise and organize around.
House Approves GOP Tax Overhaul, With Senate Outlook Uncertain

Legislation opening up a portion of ANWR for leasing cleared a key Senate hurdle this week, when the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved it on a 13-10 vote. The measure is tied to the budget process that Republican leaders are using to advance the tax overhaul, which means the bill would only need 51 votes – not the usual 60 – to advance in the full Senate. That means they can conceivably pass their legislation with just Republican votes.

The measure would generate $1.1 billion over the coming decade, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. That figure would help Senate Republicans offset the cost of their proposed tax cuts. Under reconciliation rules, the tax changes can't add more than $1.5 trillion to the deficit over 10 years, or they'd need 60 votes to advance.

Democrats are seizing on that cost disparity as they blast the bill.

"The Energy and Natural Resources Committee has been instructed to raise a billion dollars, and at the same time the Finance Committee is trying to increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion with tax cuts for corporations and millionaires," Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said at this week's committee hearing. "The fact our committee's contribution to that deal is about 7/100th of one percent of the Republicans' increased deficit spending shows that this is not a serious budget proposal. It's a cynical effort to open up the heart of the Artic Wildlife Refuge for oil."

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican and longtime proponent of drilling in ANWR, authored the bill. She pointed out that the legislation limits drilling to a relatively small area of the reserve.

"Alaskans will do this the right way," she said ahead of the committee vote. "We will protect the environment while providing substantial economic benefits all across America."

The leasing's estimated revenue comes at an opportune time for Republicans, who are scrambling to offset the costs of their proposed tax cuts. But it's not clear whether the industry would scramble to drill new wells in ANWR.

The United States experienced an unprecedented oil and gas drilling boom over the past decade because of advances in hydraulic fracturing – or "fracking" – technology. The combination of fracking and advanced horizontal drilling unlocked previously unobtainable oil and gas reserves, and eventually flooded domestic markets. That led to a substantial drop in oil prices, and a corresponding slowdown in drilling.

Still, over the past 40 years Republicans have repeatedly tried to approve ANWR drilling and repeatedly failed. The chance to use reconciliation and pass a measure with a bare 51-vote majority may be the best opportunity the GOP ever has to reach this coveted policy goal.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Chile's New "Route of Parks" Aims to Save the Wild Beauty of Patagonia

[Reprinted from Buzzflash at Truthout. See also my own dispatches from Patagonia, including Parque Pumalin and Estancia Chacabuco, two nature preserves included in this project.]

(Photo: Tompkins Conservation)

Dispatch from Chile

The road to Parque Pumalín is festooned with dozens of whitewater waterfalls that slip down the steep cliffs into a thick forest overrun by ferns and plants with leaves as big as beach umbrellas. An active volcano threatens to wipe out the sparse human settlements that are scattered like frontier outposts, often holding populations of fewer than 100 residents. The scenery, however, suddenly changes at El Amarillo, a town of perfect picket fences, exquisitely designed bridges and hand-lettered wooden signs offering help on camping and trekking.

It is here that a 25-year experiment in environmental conservation is finally coming to fruition. Parque Pumalín is a million-acre collection of untrammelled vistas and valleys that was patched together by a pair of American conservationists whose mission, known as “wildlands philanthropy”, was to keep the lands free from industrial development.

After decades of cajoling urban residents, multinational businesses and small farmers to colonise and exploit these corners of wild Patagonia, the Chilean government has made a U-turn and announced a massive conservation campaign. Spurred by the gift of Parque Pumalín, which is the largest private donation of land to a government in Latin America, the Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, signed an agreement to create five new national parks and join the million acres of Pumalín with 10 million acres of federal land. All this land will be placed under strict environmental protection as newly designated national parklands. In one stroke, the amount of protected land in Chile has doubled.

The protected areas are 5,000 times the size of Manhattan’s Central Park and include volcanoes, virgin forests and miles of wild coastline. Even the combined size of Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks would be less than one third of the land preserved by Bachelet.

Standing before glacier-topped mountains and steep granite faces reminiscent of Yosemite, Bachelet praised US philanthropists Doug Tompkins and Kristine McDivitt Tompkins for their decades-long campaign to preserve swaths of wild Patagonia. Doug Tompkins, who died in a kayak accident in December 2015, was singled out by Bachelet as a visionary who battled accusations and attempts to sabotage his conservation dream. “Doug, we did it – and I should say, we finally did it,’” said Bachelet, as she signed an accord to convert Tompkins’ privately owned Parque Pumalín into a Chilean national park. “Today,” she said, “we are bequeathing to the country the greatest creation of protected areas in our history.”

Yvon Chouinard, the founder of clothing company Patagonia and long-time climbing partner of Tompkins, was ecstatic as he watched the announcement. “Just today, Chile went from 11 million protected acres to 21 million. That puts Chile right up there with Costa Rica in terms of the percentage of protected lands,” said Chouinard, who described the donations by Tompkins Conservation as historic. “No other human has ever created this many acres of protected wildlands [through private philanthropy] and he did not do it with the stroke of a pen. These are tourist-ready parks with trails and cabins and infrastructure.”

Kristine McDivitt Tompkins smiled broadly as she addressed hundreds of environmental activists, local residents and park employees at the entrance to the new national park. “I wish my husband Doug, whose vision inspired today’s historic pledge, were here on this memorable day. Our team and I feel his absence deeply,” she said. “National parks exist in almost every country in the world. Some of them are battered, some are ill-funded, probably most. But they exist. And by and large, that holds the firmest, most consistent possibility for longevity in terms of terrestrial conservation.”

The audience applauded wildly as she described the conservation accord as a crucial first step towards uniting 17 Chilean national parks in what will be known as “the route of parks”. “This is unprecedented and will become one of the most famous routes in the world, connecting up communities and bringing new economic activity to each region. There is no long-term conservation possible unless neighbouring communities find that their best interests are served. National parks have proven to be a strong source of national pride, creating honour and admiration throughout their citizenry.”

With foreign tourism booming in Chile, the route of the park's concept is expected to consolidate what today is a haphazard and largely unorganised tourist circuit stretching for 2,400km from the city of Puerto Montt in the north to the Beagle Channel astride Tierra del Fuego in southernmost Chile. “National parks are the gold standard of conservation,” said Hernán Mladinic, who spent years working to persuade the Chilean government to preserve intact ecosystems in southern Chile. “For every dollar you invest in national parks, you get 10 back; it’s more profitable than copper.”

The transition from private park to national park will be incremental over the next two years as Chilean government officials seek to maintain the aesthetics and design with which Tompkins infused Parque Pumalín.

Employing an American concept known as “wild and scenic highways”, the new parks will seek to implement a design aesthetic that includes scenic lookout points, artfully designed signage and attempts to have roads follow the contours of the land rather than ripping straight lines through the rugged terrain.

While there was no opposition to the announcement of the new park, Tompkins had long faced bitter resistance. Local politicians accused him of harbouring secret plans to kick settlers off their land or create a dump for radioactive material. Others alleged that Tompkins planned to create a Jewish homeland or wanted to breed a mixed-race beast by crossing African lions with Patagonian pumas to attack  local livestock. “I remember a local farmer saying that Doug flew his plane so low that it wouldn’t be hard to wait on the hillside with a Mauser and shoot it down,” said Laura Casanova, a hotel operator in El Amarillo, who knew Tompkins for some 20 years.

While his relationship with Chilean authorities was rocky at times, both Tompkins and his partner Kris found wide success across South America. In Argentina they worked closely with the national government to create Monte Léon national park and had several other large-scale projects reaching completion including Iberá National Park in Corrientes.

In Argentina, Kris Tompkins oversees  programmes to reintroduce endangered species including jaguars, giant anteaters, peccaries, tapirs and pampas deer. Known as “rewilding”, the programme has been extremely successful as species on the brink of extinction, including the pampas deer and the giant anteater, are now thriving.

“What I would like to do is change the way national parks look at rewilding everywhere in the world where there are extirpated [locally extinct] species and make it one of the goals of national parks everywhere, to rewild,” she said. “As they say, landscape without wildlife is just scenery.”

The Chilean move stands in stark contrast to the policies of US president Donald Trump, who has rejected global warming, plans to slash the budget of the US Environmental Protection Agency and is seeking to reverse preservation accords signed by the Obama administration.

“It is not just US citizens who have to resist Trump and the influence of extreme right-wing Republicans and the intrinsic selfishness, blindness, anti-science, anti-environment attitude that have recently gotten the upper hand in the States,” said Lito Tejada-Flores, a renowned mountain climber and photographer who was a lifelong friend of Tompkins. “I find it very encouraging that we have some smart leaders in South America – on both sides of the Andes – who have said ‘Yes, conservation is important and science is real’.”