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Environmentalists' eyes on Coleman as Arctic Refuge fight nears
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Thousands of caribou roam the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ( photo courtesy Alaska Coalition)
For years, members of Alaska's congressional delegation have pushed for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife refuge. Minnesota's late Senator Paul Wellstone was a vocal opponent of those efforts. Now, pro-drilling forces backed by the Bush Administration are making a new attempt. Environmental groups say this time around, Minnesota's new Senator Norm Coleman could play a key role in the refuge's fate.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Supporters of drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge often describe it as "wasteland."

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Image wildflowers in refuge

Scot Hed delivers slide shows designed to counter that argument. Hed is the Midwest coordinator of the Alaska Coalition, a group dedicated to building nationwide support for preserving Alaskan wilderness. At a North Minneapolis nature center, he clicks through through slides of a spectacled eider, tundra swans, and white-fronted geese.

He's giving his presentation to about a dozen people, most of them members of environmental groups. He shows fields of wildflowers sweeping toward blue snowcapped mountains followed by close-ups of arctic foxes, snowy owls, and loons. He pauses on a wide view of thousands of caribou roaming undisturbed in what he describes as America's Serengeti.

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Image Caribou in Refuge

"When I was up there in the summer of 2001, one of the things I will never forget for as long as I live was we sat in our camp for five hours one day, and caribou came through non-stop. I don't how many thousands it was, but they came right by our camp, and we watched a scene exactly like this," Hed tells the audience.

In his former life, Hed was a commercial banker in Sioux Falls, S.D. Since his visit to the refuge, he's traveled across the Midwest to try to build support for protecting the refuge. He says Minnesota is a key state, because Senator Norm Coleman's vote is critical.

"When we won the vote resoundingly in the Senate the last time around there were eight Republicans who voted with the Democrats; it was a bipartisan majority in the Senate who voted to keep the arctic refuge protected. Well, seven of those Republicans are back this time around, one was defeated in the election, and we figure we'll count on Norm Coleman to fill the role of the eighth one," Hed explains.

Coleman won his senate seat with the strong support of President Bush. The president has made Alaskan oil drilling a central part of his energy plan. During his election campaign, Coleman said he opposed drilling in the refuge, but he also said his position could change depending on circumstances. He reiterated that stand in a recent interview.

"If some point down the road it could be shown to me that we could do this with a less intrusive impact on the environment, if for whatever reason -- I don't expect this to happen -- but if our effort to develop soy, biodiesel or renewables wasn't developing the way we would like and we were absolutely starved for the fuel that's in this area, I'm not taking the absolute 'never,'" Coleman said.

But Coleman says under current conditions, he'll continue to oppose drilling.

"From my perspective, one, we need to keep the pressure on renewables, that's one of the most important reasons for me, and secondly, I think there are serious environmental issues that are raised. And until, or unless and until, I had a better sense of those issues being resolved, I'm not going to support drilling in the refuge," Coleman said.

Refuge defenders fear that pro-drilling forces will try to push their agenda through Congress by a procedural mechanism such as attaching it as an amendment to the budget or to an energy bill. Coleman says he'll oppose such efforts.

Environmental groups are hoping they can get Minnesotans to contact Coleman to make sure he continues to oppose drilling. But Coleman says right now, he's not hearing much from constituents on either side of the issue.

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