WASHINGTON – Republicans have renewed their push in Congress to open an Arctic wildlife refuge in Alaska to oil drilling, an issue that Democrats say could jeopardize a broad energy bill.
GOP leaders said they want the final energy legislation to incorporate a House-approved proposal that would allow oil exploration and development for the first time along the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (search).
But Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the energy talks, acknowledged on Monday that drilling proponents don't have the 60 votes needed in the Senate to overcome what is expected to be a sure filibuster of the energy legislation if the ANWR language is included.
He said he would work relentlessly until House-Senate conferees reach a final compromise on the bill to try get the 60 votes needed. Only last week 43 senators voiced their continued opposition to ANWR drilling. Earlier in the year, drilling supporters could muster only 48 votes in favor of developing the refuge's oil.
The GOP's "discussion draft" will be reviewed by Democrats, but since Republicans account for a majority on both the Senate and House negotiating teams, getting the proposal withdrawn without Republican cooperation would be difficult.
Domenici said while he does not want ANWR or any single issue to jeopardize approval of a broad energy bill, he believes "developing ANWR is the right thing to do," and it can be developed without damaging the environment.
Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., who heads the House delegation, said "developing a very small portion of ANWR is critically important from an economic and national security standpoint."
"It will reduce our growing, dangerous dependence on foreign oil and will help to ensure affordable and abundant energy supplies in the future," Tauzin said in a statement.
The draft proposal, identical to one approved by the House as part of the energy bill (search) it passed last April, would allow oil development of the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain of ANWR as long as the footprint of development were limited to 2,000 acres.
That would cover only a small part of the 19 million-acre refuge, drilling proponents argue. To opponents, however, that is the point: oil is thought to be only in that coastal strip of tundra, they say, and it is there that development would threaten caribou calving areas, polar bear dens and a sanctuary for tens of thousands of migratory birds.
Drilling proponents say the environmental restrictions, including the limit of 2,000 acres that could be disturbed, would protect the wildlife. Environmentalists counter that the 2,000-acre limit is meaningless because the area can be spread across the entire 1.5-million acres of the coastal plain to create a spider web of development.
Jim Waltman of the Wilderness Society (search) said that twice in two years the Senate has made clear its distaste for opening the Alaska refuge to oil companies, and he sees no sign of an opinion shift. "We think this is a waste of time. ... The onus is on (drilling) proponents to get 60 votes" to overcome a sure filibuster of the energy bill if the ANWR language is not removed, Waltman said.
Drilling supporters hope to sway some of those senators by emphasizing the potential loss of widely popular programs if the energy bill should fail to pass, including a requirement to use more corn-based ethanol, development of clean coal technologies and expansion of a program to help the poor pay energy bills.
"I'm counting on the will of the American people and the bipartisan appeal of several provisions in the bill to bring us the ANWR votes," said Domenici. For now, he said, "It's on the table for some serious discussion."
It's not clear how much oil is beneath ANWR's coastal plain. Federal estimates have ranged from 5.6 billion barrels (95 percent probability) to 16 billion barrels (5 percent probability) of technically recoverable oil. Environmentalists emphasize that at current oil prices, much of that oil would not be worth drilling because of the high costs of development, and whatever oil is there will have little significant impact on oil prices.