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Alaska Legislature Defends ANWR.

Alaska representatives debrief 'West Wing'

By SAM BISHOP
News-Miner Washington Bureau
(subheadings ours)

WASHINGTON--Characters on "The West Wing" television drama trashed the idea of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge last week, prompting Republican members of the Alaska Legislature to send a sweetly worded rebuke to the show's producer.

The legislators, led by Rep. Jeannette James, R-North Pole, complimented the show's writers for their "high level of accuracy and attention to detail when it comes to the way public policy issues are worked into the drama's elements."

Inaccuracies in Episode

However, the March 27 episode featured characters speaking several inaccuracies, the letter said.

On the show, a fictional Republican governor of Florida, who is campaigning against the fictional President Josiah Bartlett, has written a book calling for "exploring" in ANWR. Bartlett, played by actor Martin Sheen, responds to a television host's questions about the issue by saying that what his opponent really means is "drilling" that would cause great environmental damage.

Later in the program, press secretary C.J. Cregg, played by Allison Janney, and presidential aide Charlie Young, played by Dule Hill, engage in a characteristically rapid debate about the issue.

The Problem:

The press secretary asserts that Alaska Natives oppose drilling, that the oil would only supply the nation for six months and that caribou herds would be destroyed.

Alaska legislators took exception to all this in their letter.

Alaska Natives Support Development

In fact, they said, "the Inupiat people of Kaktovik--the only community located within ANWR--overwhelmingly support development, as does the Alaska Federation of Natives."

ANWR's Oil Reserves, Caribou Issues

Also, ANWR's oil reserves would probably last more like 25 years, they said. And the quintupling of the Central Arctic Herd since Prudhoe Bay was developed shows that oil and caribou are compatible, the legislators said.

"Perhaps you can work some of these facts into a future episode," the letter said.

Given the show's popularity, the arguments presented last week are the equivalent of "millions of dollars in free advertising for the anti-ANWR effort," James said in a news release.

"These political and policy arguments carry weight with viewers, independent of the fictional nature of the program," the letter said. "In addition, considering Senate debate on the matter is close at hand, the ANWR content of 'The West Wing' is particularly timely--as are the inaccuracies unfortunate."

A representative for Aaron Sorkin, the show's producer, said she couldn't immediately comment on the legislators' letter.

Thirty-one Republican senators and representatives signed the letter. Heath Hilyard, an aide to James, said he notified the Democratic minority leaders in both houses of plans to send the letter, but no Democrats offered to sign, he said.

Sheen, the actor who plays Bartlet, is in reality an outspoken opponent of drilling in ANWR. The Defenders of Wildlife site on the Web features a letter from Sheen asking people to tell their U.S. senators not to allow drilling. The group asked Sheen to write the letter for the site.

Brad DeVries, Defenders spokesman, said he wasn't sure how much weight the show's script carried in the fight to stop drilling. "It's always hard to tell given that there is such fascination with the 'West Wing' inside the Beltway," he said.

DeVries himself hadn't seen the whole show but had taped it. The short section he did see featured the debate between the press secretary and aide.

"They traveled oratorical ground that was awfully familiar to me," DeVries said. "It sounded very much like they were presenting the position papers of both sides."

DeVries said he couldn't address the details of which Native groups support ANWR drilling but said it was clear that oil development would hurt the Porcupine Caribou Herd.

Alaska legislators would "be better off writing their letter to the U.S. Geological Survey rather than the producers of a TV show, because that's what they've found," DeVries said.

The USGS's biological studies division last week issued a report concluding that oil drilling in ANWR could harm caribou populations. The White House--the real White House--said the report assumed a drilling program that was more extensive and intrusive than the program approved by the U.S. House and now under debate in the Senate.

DeVries also defended the claim that ANWR contains six months worth of oil.

"I think it's a legitimate thing because we're very clear that is six months of (total) U.S. oil consumption," he said. "We're emphasizing that there's not a bonanza up there to be had."

The show did make one mistake that all sides could agree upon. The fictional press secretary called the land in question the Arctic National Wildlife "Reserve." The correct term is "refuge."

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