“I’m calling on all Americans, Democrats and Republicans, to take a stand to defend the Arctic from future oil and gas drilling. If we’re going to subsidize any energy, it must be clean, renewable and respect the environment.” — Senator Mitch McConnell
In an stunning reversal, Senate Republicans have accepted President Obama’s call to end tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, reversing a procedural vote on Thursday that had killed the Mendendez Bill (S. 2204 – Repeal Subsidies and Tax Breaks for the Big 5 Oil Companies), introduced by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ). On Thursday, the bill was defeated by a vote of 51-47, nine votes short of the 60 required to pass.
But in a rare Saturday afternoon session called by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the measure was swiftly rejuvenated—and passed—after nine of the Republicans who voted against the bill on Thursday had a change of heart after watching a sneak preview on Friday of To the Arctic, a documentary that follows the life of a mother polar bear caring for her two seven-month-old cubs in the Arctic. Narrated by three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep, To the Arctic arrives in IMAX theaters on April 20.
The surprise passage of the bill puts the Senate more in line with a majority of the American people when it comes to big oil. A CNN/ORC poll taken last week found that 55 percent of Americans believe that oil companies deserve “a great deal of blame” for the recent increase in gas prices. The majority of Congressional Republicans have consistently voted against ending fossil fuel subsidies, which is unsurprising, considering that many Republican lawmakers receive contributions from and invest in the oil and gas industry. But with Saturday’s abrupt turnaround, that is likely to change as well.
Drawing a Line in the Ice: Oil vs. Polar Bears
Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey believe that upwards of 50 billion barrels of oil lie within the continental shelf off the coast of Alaska, in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. But these are still unproven reservoirs. For comparison, Saudi Arabia has a proven 260 billion barrels.
One of the main concerns about drilling there is that the Arctic is a fragile ecosystem, with an ice shelf that is rapidly melting due to anthropogenic climate change, a factor that is harming much of the wildlife in the region, particularly the endangered polar bear, which needs the ice to hunt and rear young. Environmentalists and conservationists have long argued that oil drilling in Arctic would push the polar bear to extinction.
Polar Bears’ Newest Allies: Senate Republicans
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) was one of the nine Republican senators who voted against the bill on Thursday, and then had an about-face after seeing the tragic plight of the polar bears in To the Arctic.
“I was deeply touched by this story of this polar bear family’s struggle to survive in a frigid environment of melting ice,” Cornyn said. “They may be polar bears, but their desire to live is no less powerful than ours. And I realized that instead of drilling in their fragile habitat, we need to preserve it. And giving more taxpayer handouts to oil companies that want to destroy the Arctic is not the answer.”
It is a dramatic change of heart from a politician who has received over $2 million in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry—the most of any senator. His office issued a brief statement on Saturday saying that Cornyn has already spoken with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), offering to be a spokesperson in support of their efforts to save the polar bear.
“We couldn’t be more thrilled to have Senator Corwyn on board our campaign to save the polar bear,” said Carter Roberts, CEO of the WWF. “There is no better spokesperson than someone who switched sides for ethical reasons.” Roberts said that Cornyn even offered to wear a polar bear suit at the next meeting of the Subcommittee on Energy, Natural Resources, and Infrastructure, on which the senator is the minority ranking member.
Senator McConnell: Defend the Arctic from Future Oil and Gas Drilling
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is the second-highest recipient in the Senate of contributions from the oil and gas industry, with over $1.5 million, also had a change of heart after seeing the film.
“The polar bear is an American icon,” said McConnell, soon after voting yea in Saturday’s re-vote.
“But it’s getting much more difficult for a polar bear mother and her cubs to survive in the harsh Arctic,” he said, fighting back tears. “Every new day she has to travel farther to find food because the sea ice she needs to hunt is quickly melting from global warming. Her hungry cubs face starvation on a regular basis. And now, because of our addiction to oil, she has to deal with the prospect of an oil spill? It’s not right. It’s not moral. And I’m calling on all Americans, Democrats and Republicans, to take a stand to defend the Arctic from future oil and gas drilling. If we’re going to subsidize any energy, it must be clean, renewable and respect the environment.”
McConnell’s office released a statement saying the senator will be offering his considerable political clout to support Greenpeace’s efforts to protect the Arctic and bring the message to a new audience.
North Pole: A New “Global Commons”?
“Our goal is to permanently ban oil drilling and industrial fishing in the Arctic and to establish the area around the North Pole as a ‘global commons,'” said Dan Howells, Deputy Campaign Director of Greenpeace USA. “And now that we have Senator McConnell’s support, this ambitious plan can sooner become a reality. In 1991, a Greenpeace campaign much like this one helped establish Antarctica as a world park and off limits to commercial extraction. We did it before, we can do it again.”
While ending subsidies to the oil and gas industry signals an important shift on Capitol Hill, such handouts only represent a small fraction of Big Oil’s operational budgets for the extraction, refinement and distribution of dirty fossil fuel. “Cutting $2.4 billion in subsidies annually to the biggest companies—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell—might seem like a solid initial step,” said Karen Showalter of Oil Change International, a Washington, DC-based clean energy advocacy group. “But it’s just the tip of the iceberg. The oil and gas industry receives at least $10 billion annually in special favors.”
But now, polar bears are going to be getting some favored treatment of their own, thanks to some high-ranking Republicans who were touched by the story of one family, struggling to survive in one of the Earth’s harshest environments.
 Cohen, Tom and Alan Silverleib. Senate Republicans reject Obama call to end ‘big oil’ tax breaks. March 29, 2012. Accessed March 31, 2012.
 MacGillivray Freeman Films. IMAX – To the Arctic. November 1, 2010. Accessed March 31, 2012.
 CNN/ORC poll. Interviews with 1,014 adult Americans conducted by telephone by ORC International on March 24-25, 2012. Accessed March 31, 2012.
 CNBC. Polar Bears vs. Oil. January 28, 2008. Accessed March 31, 2012.
 Oil Change International. Dirty Energy Money Campaign: John Cornyn. February 8, 2012. Accessed March 31, 2012.
 World Wildlife Fund. Polar Bear: World’s Largest Land Carnivore. September 29, 2011. Accessed March 31, 2012.
 Howells, Dan. Greenpeace Email: Polar Bear Cubs Won’t Stand a Chance. March 26, 2012. Accessed March 31, 2012.
 Showalter, Karen. Senate Fails to Cut Favors to Big Oil, Once Again. March 29, 2012. Accessed March 31, 2012.