With the paint hardly dry in the Oval Office, George Bush is wasting no time in undoing the legacy of his predecessor. Just as he has moved to block support for charities supporting abortion abroad, he is now preparing to open up a priceless arctic refuge to oil exploration.
The White House, which announced the abortion reversal on Monday, is indicating that Mr Bush will push through licenses for oil and gas drilling in the remote Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in northern Alaska as soon as he can. The refuge is home to caribou and other wildlife and the American Indians who hunt them.
Mr Bush made his intentions plain early in his campaign, instantly enraging environmental groups. Whether or not to open the refuge to the oil giants was one of the clearest areas of disagreement between Mr Bush and his opponent, Al Gore, who insisted he would protect it.
And protecting the refuge was one of Bill Clinton's most earnest priorities as president. In one of his final acts before leaving office he issued an executive order banning road construction, logging and mining on almost 60 million acres of National Forest, including the Tongass National Forest, hugging the southern end of the Alaskan coastline. Indeed, when the country suffered a government shutdown in 1995, conflict between the President and Republicans in Congress over the ANWR was one of the issues involved. Now all has changed, of course. The new president is a former oil man himself and the oil industry's support for him has never faltered. Already the White House is signalling that he is ready to act.
"Moving quickly on a national energy policy is important," Ari Fleischer, the new White House spokesman, said this week. "We'll push ahead to develop 8 per cent of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge". The area to be invaded is the Refuge's coastal plain of about 1.5 million acres.
It helps the President's case that large parts of California are suffering repeated blackouts at the moment as its electricity industry struggles to meet demand. Indeed, California's crisis is very convenient: the US has an energy crunch; the US has untapped oil; let's get after it. Opponents of the plan will point to Prudhoe Bay, to the west of the Refuge. What was envisioned three decades ago as a concentrated area of oil and gas exploration by the bay has spread like a rash in every direction and even into the Arctic Ocean. When astronauts see North America from space, the blotch of light that is Prudhoe Bay is as bright and as big as New York city.
What has happened around Prudhoe, where nitrogen oxide emissions now exceed 56,000 tonnes a year twice the level of pollution over Washington DC will be the subject of a report by a scientific panel appointed by Congress. The panel, which held its first hearings recently, will report next year on the multiple social and environmental impacts of 30 years of oil industry sprawl.
Aside from air pollution, what are the risks of injecting toxic waste from drilling deep into the earth's crust? And what imbalances have been wrought in the wildlife chain by the increase in the numbers of foxes and grizzly bears who scavenge food from skips? Alone, the report is hardly likely to blunt the new administration's ardour for expanded arctic exploration. Support for giving oil firms access to the refuge has already been voiced by Gale Norton, Mr Bush's nominee for US interior secretary. She told Congress last week that the drilling activities might involve only about 2,000 acres "in an area that is well over the size of many of our states". She also pledged to make sure that everything was done to minimise ecological damage, perhaps by drilling, for instance, only in mid-winter.
The Refuge is a frozen sanctuary to a wealth of animals, including caribou, musk oxen, wolves, and three species of bear as well as hundreds of thousands of migratory birds. It is concern for these species that is driving opposition from environmental groups. American Indians who live by caribou hunting are afraid too. Canada will also try to block it.
Already speaking up are the Gwich'in Indians of Alaska and Canada. Hunting Porcupine caribou is central to their identity. "We've been here for thousands of years, dependent on the Porcupine herd, and we'll be here for thousands of years more. We're determined as ever to protect our culture," said Donna Carroll, a member of the Gwich'in Steering Committee.
Environmental activists are already deriding the assurances of Ms Norton. "It is grossly misleading to say you can drill in the arctic refuge in an environmentally sound manner," complained Melanie Griffin of the Sierra Club. Other groups galvanised to keep the refuge pristine include the Alaska Wilderness League, Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund. Hanging over the debate are memories of the Exxon Valdez oil spill that fouled the waters of Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989.
Among those who have already testified in the Prudhoe Bay hearings is George Ahmaogak, an Inupiat Eskimo who is mayor of the North Slope Borough, a huge area of territory in the Alaskan north. He likes to cite the predicament of the small village of Nuiqsut. Once a safe distance from the oil rigs, it is now encircled by wells and pipelines. Caribou that used to come close to the village are rarely seen now. "They are totally surrounded by pipelines," Mr Ahmaogak said this week. The residents feel cut off from their own environment and hunting grounds. "They're having a heck of a time harvesting caribou. Caribou used to come right up to them," he said.
While angered by what the Prudhoe Bay development has done to his constituents, Mayor Ahmaogak is not opposed to drilling in the Refuge he is fiercely supportive of it. Indeed, so are most Alaskans who pay no tax because of the oil boom and instead receive an annual oil dividend from the government, worth $1,963 in 2000. Most Alaskan politicians want the refuge opened up.
They include Governor Tony Knowles, a Democrat who believes exploiting the Refuge is "America's best chance for major oil and gas discoveries at a time of national energy shortages". He is excited at Mr Bush taking over at the White House. "We're better positioned ever for success".
The Refuge is a tempting trove. Some experts believe that once allowed in, energy corporations would find about 12 billion barrels of recoverable crude oil as well as several trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The Bush plan also foresees constructing a pipeline to bring the oil and gas down to the 48 contiguous states and nearer to energy-starved California.
Prudhoe Bay already burns brightly. Soon the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve may burn brightly beside it. And one day New York may seem dim by comparison.
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd