WASHINGTON – The Senate brought the country one step closer Thursday to drilling for oil and natural gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (search) after it narrowly defeated an attempt to kill drilling in an amendment attached to the deficit reduction bill.
"The state of Alaska has been waiting a long time to let the United States of America, which they're part of, share in their abundance of oil, and today we finally have said that it's time," said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
"Using backdoor tactics to destroy America's last great wild frontier will not solve our nation's energy problems and will do nothing to lower skyrocketing gas prices," Sen. Maria Cantwell (search) D-Wash., argued in calling for opposition to drilling.
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Cantwell fell two votes short when the Senate defeated her amendment to strip the provision, 51-48. Supporters of drilling say the vote reflects new political realities dictated by higher gasoline prices.
"The public opinion polls, particularly after (Hurricane) Katrina, have established the American public is in support of opening ANWR to limited exploration and development," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
Drilling would occur on the coastal plane on a 1.5 million acre plot within ANWR's 19.5 million-acre terrain. Available oil reserves are estimated between 4 billion and 12 billion barrels, a six-month to 20-month supply for the entire United States if it were completely dependent on the reserve. Currently, the United States now uses about 7.3 billion barrels of oil a year, or 20 million barrels a day. Almost 60 percent of it is imported.
In an 86-13 vote, the Senate required that none of the oil from ANWR can be exported. Without protecting it, "there is no assurance that even one drop of Alaskan oil will get to hurting Americans," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a drilling opponent who nevertheless sponsored the no-export provision with Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., who strongly supports drilling in ANWR.
Even with instant approval for drilling, it will take 10 years before the oil from ANWR will be brought to market, and another 10 years after that to get to 1 million barrels pumped per day.
"The Department of Energy says that drilling in ANWR will do little in the near term and very little in the long term, reducing gas prices by only one penny," Cantwell said.
Alaska's North Slope (search) has produced oil since 1977, with what some said has been a great cost to the environment around the area. Cantwell said she feared similar environmental damage from drilling in ANWR.
"There is an average of over 500 oil spills a year on Alaskan North Slope, and over 4,000 spills in the last 10 years. Let's not pollute one of the great last refuges of America," Cantwell said.
Republicans have sought ANWR drilling for a decade. In addition to new political calculations, the Senate GOP shielded ANWR drilling by sticking it into a budget bill opponents cannot block with a filibuster.
After voting all day Thursday on several amendments to the deficit reduction bill, senators passed a five-year bill to reduce the growth of federal spending by $36 billion or three tenths of 1 percent.
Across the Capitol, House Republicans muscled a five-year bill with $54 billion in savings through the Budget Committee. It too included an ANWR provision.
The House Democratic leader predicted unanimous party opposition.
"When we take this vote, we will make this budget very hot for the Republicans to handle," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
That threat drew the wrath of Rep. Tom DeLay, the former majority leader now fighting indictments on campaign finance charges.
"Republicans have proposed to find $50 billion in savings from a $2.5 trillion budget, and not a single Democrat will help," DeLay said.
The Senate passed the budget bill by a vote of 52-47. House Republicans hope to bring their version to the floor next week. But Republican moderates have yet to commit to opening up ANWR, which was set aside for protection 44 years ago, or reducing spending on food stamps and health care programs.
The provision in the budget bill assumed $2.5 billion in federal revenue from oil lease sales over the next five years. Alaska would get a like amount as well as half of future oil royalties from the refuge.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.