WASHINGTON – The Bush administration will not give up its efforts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling despite strong opposition in Congress, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said Thursday.
Norton, underscoring President Bush's persistence, plans a return trip to the pristine Alaska refuge next week, which would fulfill her promise to see it in summer conditions and gather more viewpoints.
"We don't view this as an issue where we're giving up. We need to continue to present information to Congress," Norton said in an interview with The Associated Press. "This is an issue that has been debated for the last quarter-century. I imagine we will continue to talk about it no matter what Congress does or doesn't do this year."
Norton also said drilling in the refuge would send a signal to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. "Having strong American production gives us better bargaining position with other countries," she said.
Norton visited the 19-million acre refuge along northern Alaska's coastal plain in late March, when it resembled a moonscape of ice. On her second trip, she will see a thawed vista cut by rivers at the foot of the rugged Brooks Range, dotted with caribou, musk ox and migrating birds such as snow geese -- the time of year, as she put it, "when people are most enthusiastic about it."
She said she hopes her visit will give her insight into how winter work practices and new drilling technology might affect the 1.5 million-acre tract of the Arctic refuge with oil and gas potential. In 1980, Congress banned drilling without specific congressional authorization but allowed studies to see if the energy potential can be tapped without harming "fish, wildlife and other resources." The Interior Department's last comprehensive study of the tract was published in 1987.
Norton's trip also will include meeting with Gwich'in Indians, who live 150 miles from the refuge and oppose drilling because of physical and spiritual reliance on the migratory caribou herds that give birth on the plain each summer.
"What I want to be able to do is to assure people that I have actually seen what I am talking about," she said.
The Senate's new majority leader, Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has declared the idea of drilling in the refuge dead on arrival on Capitol Hill. Norton, however, said she was buoyed by the House Appropriations Committee's rejection Wednesday of a provision by Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., that would have banned preparations for drilling.
"Nobody ever expected this to be noncontroversial," she said. "I view my job as laying out options. The political process can choose which options they want to pursue. The options are whether we look to American sources, either in Alaska or in the lower 48, or we look to foreign sources."