Isle senators vote
Inouye and Akaka say their
focus in the Alaska refuge case
was native land rights
Hawaii's senators joined Republicans in voting to open the Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling and give President Bush a momentous energy policy win.
Before the 51-49 vote, arguments weighing America's dependence on foreign oil imports against the violation of pristine government-protected lands dominated the Senate floor.
But Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka, some of whose constituents fight for native land rights, focused the debate over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the authority of Alaska natives to control their ancestral lands.
"To some of my colleagues, the debate about ANWR is about energy. To others it is about the environment," Akaka said in a statement yesterday. "To me, ANWR is really about whether or not the indigenous people who are directly impacted have a voice about the use of their lands."
Akaka was not available to comment directly on his vote, but his office insisted the issue went beyond party lines.
"It's a nonpartisan issue to the senator," said Donalyn DelaCruz, a spokeswoman for Akaka.
Inouye, who was once chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said all but one of 230 Eskimo tribes in Alaska support drilling.
"Am I supposed to ignore this?" Inouye asked when explaining his vote.
Louisiana's senator, Mary Landrieu, was the only other Democrat to cross party lines in the vote.
The Alaska Federation of Natives and the largest town on the refuge's coastal plain, Kaktovik, officially support responsible development of oil and gas in the refuge. But opinions among the village's Alaska natives vary, Kaktovik Mayor Lon Sonsalla said. Most have concerns about possible changes to their way of life if the oil and gas industry arrives.
Inouye and Alaska's Republican senator Ted Stevens, who supports drilling, have been close allies in the Senate for years.
But Inouye rejected the idea that his vote might have been cast to gain backing from Republican senators for any measures he is supporting, including the Akaka bill, which would grant federal recognition to native Hawaiians. That bill is awaiting a floor vote in the Senate.
"I didn't put any conditions on it. I don't make that kind of bargain," Inouye said. "If I didn't believe in this, I wouldn't vote on it."
Both Hawaii senators said their positions on the Alaska issue have been consistent for years.
The Senate vote stymied an attempt by most Democrats and GOP moderates to remove a refuge drilling provision from next year's budget.
The action helps clear the way for approving drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge later this year. The House has not included a similar provision in its budget, so the issue is still subject to negotiations later this year.
The oil industry has sought for more than two decades to get access to what is believed to be billions of barrels of oil beneath the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the northeastern corner of Alaska.
Environmentalists say that despite improved environmental controls, a web of pipelines and drilling platforms would harm calving caribou, polar bears and millions of migratory birds that use the coastal plain.
The Sierra Club of Hawaii said it "condemns Sens. Akaka and Inouye" for their votes.