WASHINGTON – Pushing a Senate energy bill that includes a controversial provision to increase U.S. reliance on domestic oil production, President Bush said Tuesday that recent events in the Middle East only bolster the argument for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
The Senate is in the midst of debating an energy package that includes calls for increased energy independence, but its outcome is in doubt because many Democratic lawmakers oppose opening ANWR, arguing that it will ruin the pristine habitat that is home to thousands of wildlife.
Senate Republicans say the impact on the refuge would be small, and exploration would dramatically help the United States reduce its reliance on foreign oil, particularly from countries like Iraq, where leader Saddam Hussein has imposed a 30-day oil embargo because of the Mideast crisis.
"You know my opinion about Saddam; the world's not going to follow him. But it just goes to show how important it is to diversify our supply away from places like Iraq," Bush told Republican campaign contributors in Connecticut Tuesday.
On Monday, Saddam said he was cutting shipments of oil for 30 days or until Israel withdraws from Palestinian occupied territories.
Back in Washington, Interior Secretary Gale Norton joined a group of senators and Jewish community leaders to argue for developing ANWR, which Norton said could provide enough oil to offset for 30 to 40 years what the United States imports from Saddam.
"Iraq thinks it can use oil as a weapon. The U.S. needs strong independent sources of energy," Norton said, noting that any exploration would involve "stringent environmental protections and 21st century technology to protect the environment."
Senate opponents to drilling argue that oil would not flow from ANWR for a decade and even then do little to curb oil imports that are expected to continue to grow in the years ahead. A recent Energy Department study concluded imports would decline only slightly over what they would otherwise be if the refuge's oil were made available.
At peak production, ANWR would supply about 1.9 million barrels a day, according to the Interior Department estimates. The United States today uses 19 million barrels a day, 57 percent of that from imports. Iraq exports 160,000 barrels of oil each day.
At least six Republicans have gone on record opposing drilling in the refuge and only four Democrats have publicly said they favor oil and gas development there.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., the lone Democrat among Tuesday's group, delivered some of the strongest words, and said she intends to put pressure on the Democratic leadership to "change course" on the issue.
"The most important step the Senate could take to bring peace to the Middle East in the short-term and the long-term, and to combat the war on terror ... is to pass a comprehensive energy bill that opens up more domestic sources for oil," she said.
She added that because of U.S. reliance on foreign oil, Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is in the Middle East to negotiate a peace settlement between warring Israelis and Palestinians, has "one hand tied behind his back."
If support for drilling doesn't pick up, some Republican senators have considered abandoning a Senate vote on drilling in the refuge to avoid appearing weak during final negotiations with the House on the energy bill.
Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, said through a spokesman Monday that he still intends to press the case in the Senate and is preparing an amendment to the energy bill that would open the refuge in northeastern Alaska to oil development.
The House energy legislation, approved last summer, already includes opening the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil companies. Senate Democrats have promised to block an attempt to put a similar measure into the Senate bill and Republicans are far short of the 60 votes needed to overcome any filibuster.
To try to get wider support, some Republican senators have privately suggested scaling back lease sales to only the northwestern third of the 1.5-million-acre ANWR coastal plain. Geologists believe 80 percent of the oil may be located in that one-third area.
On Monday, the Interior Department produced an analysis that concluded that if oil development were limited to the northwestern one-third of the plain, there would be minimal impact on the calving activities of Porcupine caribou, one of the issues of most concern to environmentalists.
Fox News' Julie Asher and the Associated Press contributed to this report.