WASHINGTON – The Senate rejected a centerpiece of President Bush's energy policy Thursday, denying Republicans a vote on oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Senate Republicans fell 14 votes short, 54-46, of the 60 needed to break a Democratic filibuster of an amendment, offered by Alaska's senators, to open the wildlife refuge to oil companies.
The vote was expected to force Republicans to withdraw the measure and essentially clear the way for approval of the energy legislation, probably next week.
"At a time when oil and gas prices are rising, the Senate today missed an opportunity to lead America to greater energy independence," said White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer.
"The president will continue to fight for the tens of thousands of jobs that are created by opening ANWR, as well as — more importantly — for the need for America to be able to achieve more energy independence that would result from opening ANWR," he added.
He would not say whether Bush would sign an energy bill that does not include the ANWR proposal. "We'll go to conference and try to improve the bill from what the Senate passed," he said.
If the Senate bill is approved without the ANWR drilling, it will go to a conference committee, where it will have to be reconciled with the House bill — which did approve oil drilling in Alaska's coastal plain.
Those who support drilling in ANWR say it could significantly reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil. But most independent experts who have done the mathematic calculations suggest that is not the case and that environmental protection is more important.
"Development (of the refuge) would irreversibly damage this natural resource," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., a leader of the filibuster.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, blamed "radical environmental organizations" for derailing the amendment and therefore cutting off his state from half of the royalties from oil taken from the refuge.
Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, who has led the fight to open the refuge, said that without ANWR drilling "there is not one single thing in this energy bill that increases oil production."
"It's not over yet," Murkowski said. He said he had other amendments related to the refuge planned, but didn't elaborate.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said Murkowski probably will withdraw his drilling amendment so the Senate can move forward and pass the energy bill.
However, with pro-drilling forces falling short of even a majority, oil development of the Alaska refuge may be dead in Congress for this year. "The vote really settles the issue in the Senate," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.
Also, an attempt to gain some pro-drilling votes by funneling money from future Arctic refuge oil leases to help steelworkers and coal miners was rejected 64-36.
The proposal called for exploration on 2,000 of the 1.5 million acres making up the ANWR. The U.S. has 3 percent of the world's oil reserves — but uses 25 percent of the world's oil production. Democrats argued that there are other places besides the ANWR to which the U.S. can turn in order to put a lot of oil in the pipeline.
Oil companies are holding 8,000 leases today for deep-water exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. They haven't drilled in the Gulf of Mexico because they have waited for the price of oil to go up.
Republicans said this was the wrong time to cut off debate about pursuing an alternative oil source.
"There's an inferno in the Mideast and we're importing more than 50 percent of our oil," said Murkowski, arguing that extracting the oil in ANWR is a matter of national security because it will cut the need for imports.
As the Senate vote neared, lobbyists for both sides of the debate descended upon Washington to make their cases. The big oil companies, however, largely have kept silent, their attention on exploration elsewhere.
The Associated Press contributed to his report.