WASHINGTON – The House on Thursday night endorsed oil drilling in an Alaska wildlife refuge, setting up a likely confrontation with the Senate as Congress struggles to produce a comprehensive energy policy.
An attempt to strip a House energy bill of a provision that would allow development of the refuge's oil was turned back by a 228-197 vote. Drilling opponents argued more oil could be saved with higher auto fuel economy requirements than the refuge could produce.
Earlier, the House rejected a proposal to require a 5 percent reduction in fuel used by motor vehicles, including SUVs and pickup trucks, within seven years. Opponents to the measure said it would force automakers to make small cars.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., sponsor of the anti-drilling amendment, criticized "going to a pristine area in the Arctic and drilling" and then putting the oil "into SUVs that get 10 to 13 miles a gallon." If lawmakers are unwilling to improve auto fuel economy "we have no right to jeopardize a pristine wilderness that should be preserved for the next generation," he said.
But Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said those who argue against developing the refuge's oil don't have the facts. Most of them, he complained, haven't visited the area on Alaska's North Slope, just east of the oil-rich Prudhoe Bay fields.
The House was still considering other amendments when it put the energy bill aside late Thursday night to work on budget issues.
A final vote on the bill -- which includes a string of incentives for oil and gas development, $18.7 billion in tax breaks, mostly to energy companies, and a requirement for greater use of corn-based ethanol as a gasoline additive -- was expected to come Friday.
With the pro-drilling vote, the House put itself into conflict with the Senate, which last month rejected drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by a vote of 52-48. Even pro-drilling Senate Republicans have indicated they have little stomach to take on the issue again in an energy bill that Democrats have vowed to filibuster over the drilling issue.
The Senate is expected to take up its energy bill next month.
There are plenty of refuges, including some in Louisiana, where wildlife and oil development go hand in hand, and the Alaska refuge should be no different, argued Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., the energy bill's floor manager.
In an attempt to gain support from GOP moderates, the House added restrictions Thursday that would limit the total area for oil development in ANWR to 2,000 acres. Critics said the limits were misleading because the acres could be spread, like a spider web, across the entire 1.5 million-acre coastal plain that holds the oil. Environmentalists strongly believe the area should be protected because of its caribou, polar bears, migrating birds and other wildlife.
Sponsors of the auto fuel economy measure argued that there's no way to significantly reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil without requiring more fuel-efficient cars and sport utility vehicles. But an amendment requiring these vehicles to use 5 percent less fuel by 2010 was rejected 268-162.
"How can we be silent on auto fuel efficiency if this bill is going to do anything at all?" asked Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., one of the amendment's sponsors. Markey, another sponsor, said "we're moving backward" in auto fuel economy.
Opponents of the requirement said it would jeopardize the auto industry and consumers' ability to buy larger cars and SUVs. It will "force Americans to ride around in minicars," warned Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., whose state is home to much of the U.S. auto industry.
Many Democrats said the House bill gives short shift to energy conservation and development of renewable energy sources and is full of unneeded subsidies for energy companies.
"It gives away billions of dollars to powerful industries courtesy of the taxpayer," complained Dingell.
In addition to the $18.7 billion in tax subsidies, including tax benefits for oil and gas drilling, the bill has more advantageous write-offs for utilities for the cost of transmission lines, and an extension of tax credits to promote wind-powered energy. Homeowners who install solar heating systems would get a $2,000 credit.
In a boon to farmers, the legislation would require a doubling of the use of corn-based ethanol as a gasoline additive. Refiners would have to use 5 billion gallons of ethanol by 2015. While the ethanol expansion has widespread, bipartisan support, Rep. Rich Boucher, D-Va., complained "it will raise the price of gasoline" and could cause supply problems.
The bill also:
-- Allows companies to avoid federal royalty payments on natural gas taken from very deep wells in the Gulf of Mexico.
-- Gives federal energy regulators authority to regulate the location of electric power lines if states fail to do so.
-- Streamlines the licensing process for hydroelectric dams.
-- Makes it easier to open corridors for gas pipelines and power lines on federal land.
-- Provides new tax breaks and other incentives to spur the research into hydrogen fuel cells for use in cars and for production of electricity.
-- Calls for an inventory of oil and gas reserves in all coastal waters, including those that have been off limits to drilling for two decades.