ANWR Option Still Up for Debate in Congress

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Conspicuous by its absence in the sweeping energy bill that President Bush has championed and will sign Monday is his top energy priority: opening an Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling.

But the fight over the future of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (search) will flare anew in Congress next month with drilling advocates saying they have their best chance in more than two decades of making it happen.

Tapping what is believed to be at least 10 billion barrels of oil within the refuge's 1.5 million-acre coastal plain has been the centerpiece of Bush's energy agenda dating back to his first presidential campaign in 2000. Bush has repeatedly said the oil is important to the nation's national and economic security.

But the idea that drilling proponents might win has produced outrage among environmentalists, who see the region as a pristine refuge where caribou, polar bears, migratory birds and other wildlife thrive and should be protected.

A coalition of most Democrats and a handful of moderate Republicans repeatedly has thwarted attempts to open the refuge to energy development through the power of the Senate filibuster.

"If we had put (Arctic drilling) in the bill, we wouldn't be here," said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., celebrating passage of the energy bill that Bush plans to sign in a ceremony in Albuquerque, N.M. The bill never could have mustered the 60 votes needed to overcome a certain Senate filibuster over ANWR, he says.

But drilling advocates have a backup plan that is expected to unfold in mid-September.

Domenici said he will include a provision authorizing ANWR drilling as part of a budget procedure that is immune to filibuster. A similar maneuver is being planned in the House, although the final strategy is still being worked out.

Unlike normal legislation, the budget process is not subject to filibuster, so only 51 votes will be needed in the Senate for it to clear Congress and be signed into law by the president. Just such a tactic was used a decade ago when Congress approved ANWR drilling as part of the budget process, only to see the measure vetoed by then- President Clinton, a drilling opponent.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (search), R-Alaska, said her state's delegation is determined to push for opening the refuge, calling it "the final component" of a nation energy plan that she hopes will be put in place later this year.

Alaska would get half of the proceeds from oil leases, which the Congressional Budget Office has estimated at $5 billion over five years, shared equally by the federal government and the state.

This expected revenue is at the heart of the strategy drilling supporters plan to pursue to end more than 20 years of debate over access to ANWR's oil. The budget will assume $2.5 billion in federal revenue from ANWR lease sales, beginning in 2007. That, in turn will allow lawmakers to draft an accompanying document authorizing such drilling — a so-called "reconciliation" document which is not subject to filibuster and when signed by the president will have the force of law.

It's "backdoor budget chicanery," complained Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., an ANWR drilling opponent. "By shoehorning the Arctic refuge into the budget, they are making an end-run around the legislative process, knowing it cannot pass the Senate any other way."

But drilling advocates accuse opponents of also having relied on parliamentary maneuvers, the filibuster, to keep the issue from being decided on a straight up-or-down vote.

Environmentalists are gearing up for a fight, hitting state fairs, town meetings and other community events during the summer August doldrums when Congress is in recess, hoping to rally public sentiment against drilling.

"We're not holding anything back. We're organizing like we have never before," said Athan Manuel of U.S. PIRG, a grass-roots environmental advocacy group with branches in every state.

The outcome could depend on a handful of votes, says Melinda Pierce, of the Sierra Club. But handicapping them will be anything but simple.