WASHINGTON – Despite increased GOP strength, the Senate appeared to be evenly divided Tuesday in advance of a key vote on whether to allow oil drilling in an Alaska (search) wildlife refuge.
A flurry of last-ditch lobbying suggested a close vote Wednesday when senators take up the refuge development issue in the first major environmental vote of this Congress (search).
Sen. Ted Stevens (search), R-Alaska, who for more than two decades has been unable to persuade Congress to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil companies, said he was optimistic this time.
"We believe we have the votes," Stevens said at a news conference. Alaska officials view the refuge's oil as replacing dwindling shipments from the aging Prudhoe Bay fields on the North Slope.
Seeking to sidestep a Democratic filibuster that would require 60 votes to overcome, Republican leaders have put the Alaska refuge provision into a budget document that is immune to a filibuster under Senate rules.
During several hours of Senate debate, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said that even at peak production the refuge would account for less than 2.5 percent of U.S. oil needs. "How in the world can this be the centerpiece of our energy policy?" asked Durbin, arguing that more conservation and more fuel efficient automobiles would save more oil than the Alaska refuge would produce.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., a staunch supporter of drilling, said the refuge's oil represents "the most significant onshore production capacity" in the country. "We should do everything we can to produce as much as we can," he said, citing the country's growing dependence on oil imports.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, rejected claims that oil rigs and pipelines would ruin a national environmental treasure, as critics charge. "We know we've got to do it right. ... It's a fragile environment," said Murkowski, adding that oil companies in Alaska are subject to the most stringent environmental requirements in the world.
However, Democrats vowed to fight the measure. They complained that an issue as divisive as opening a pristine area of wild land, specifically protected by Congress from development, should be debated independently and not as part of the budget process.
"They want to sneak this into the budget," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. She predicted a "very close vote" on a proposal she and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., offered Tuesday to strip the refuge language from the budget document.
Drilling supporters have tried for years to allow oil companies access to what is believed to be billions of barrels of oil beneath the refuge's 1.5-million acre coastal plain.
President Bush has made access to the refuge's oil a key part of his energy agenda. Last week, Bush declared that 10 billion barrels of oil could be pumped from the refuge and that it could be done "with almost no impact on land or wildlife."
Environmentalists argue that while new technologies have reduced the drilling footprint, ANWR's coastal plain still would contain a spider web of pipelines that would disrupt calving caribou and disturb polar bears, musk oxen and the annual influx of millions of migratory birds.
Developing the oil "is going to have no effect in the long-term on America's energy future," Kerry told reporters. Even if the refuge were to supply 1 million barrels of oil a day, at its peak expected production, the United States would remain heavily dependent on foreign oil unless there were serious efforts to reduce consumption, he said.
How much oil would be economically recoverable from the refuge is still unclear.
Only one exploratory well has been drilled, and the results have been kept secret. The U.S. Geological Survey, using seismic studies, estimated in 1998 that between 5.6 billion to 16 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil is likely to be beneath the refuge's tundra.
But how much of that oil would be attractive to oil companies would depend on the price of oil. In recent years a number of major oil companies have stopped lobbying for opening ANWR, focusing their activities elsewhere in the world.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton said she has no doubt that oil companies would seek out exploratory leases in the Alaska refuge. If given a go-ahead from Congress, she said, she would expect to begin offering leases in 2007 with refuge oil beginning to flow down the Alaska pipeline "seven or 10 years after that."