Debate Over Arctic Oil Drilling Blocks Energy Bill

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The new emphasis on drilling for oil in protected Alaskan lands as a national security resource is heightening the debate between developers and conservationists.

President Bush is demanding that Congress allow drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, arguing that the current crisis is pressing the issue's urgency.

"It's in our national interest that we develop more energy supplies at home," President Bush told business leaders recently, demanding that the Senate take up energy legislation "and get a bill to my desk" before Congress adjourns for the year.

Opening the Arctic refuge for oil development remains key to "an independent energy policy for America," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

The House approved energy legislation, including drilling in ANWR, six months ago, but the Senate is stuck on the legislation because Democrats say there are higher priorities in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

Energy "is an issue that Democratic leaders want to duck for now," said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.

Democrats argue the administration is exploiting terrorist fears to allow drilling in an area where oil won't actually be pumped for a decade.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has put energy legislation on hold.

"The most important focus for us now is the economic recovery plan, the airport security plan and the appropriations bills," he told reporters.

Democrats have threatened to filibuster a vote on drilling, but may not have the 60 votes needed to limit debate. That's because Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, ranking chairman on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has been pushing for drilling in ANWR for years. He thinks he has the 51 votes needed to lift a 1980 congressional ban on developing the region's oil prospects.

"This is a critical dividing-line issue," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who has pledged to lead a filibuster. He expects Democratic Sens. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Hillary Clinton of New York and John Wyden of Oregon to join him in the effort.

Drilling there "will do nothing to enhance our national security at this moment in time," Kerry said in a recent interview.

The fight will likely get nasty as senators wrap themselves in patriotism to defend their positions.

Murkowski has been very forceful, bringing veterans groups' representatives to Capitol Hill to chide Daschle for allowing the United States to continue its heavy reliance on foreign oil.

Administration officials are adding to the assault.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton called recently for action on energy at a Capitol Hill news conference, in a speech to an oil conference in Louisiana and in letters to radio talk show hosts.

"Every day the United States imports 700,000 barrels of oil from (Iraq's) Saddam Hussein," Norton has said in letters to radio talk show hosts.  "It's time to start producing that energy in the United States."

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the energy committee, said the administration is giving undue "almost obsessive attention" to ANWR while ignoring other domestic oil resources in other parts of Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico.

Growth in energy demand "will overwhelm any future domestic production even if ANWR were opened," Bingaman said.

The government estimates that at least 5.7 billion barrels -- and possibly as many as 16 billion barrels -- may be recoverable from the refuge, depending on whether the price of oil makes pumping it cost-prohibitive.

Environmentalists argue that ANWR has no more than 3.2 billion barrels, not enough to dramatically ease the country's reliance on imports.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.