Senate Committee OKs Alaska Refuge Drilling

A Senate committee voted Wednesday to include drilling in an Alaska (search) wildlife refuge in a massive budget proposal, assuring that drilling opponents won't be able to use the filibuster to thwart oil development there.

The Senate Energy Committee (search) proposal, approved 13-9, calls for the Interior Department to put up for bid by Oct. 1, 2010, two oil leases in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

By making the issue part of a complex budget reconciliation process, supporters will be able to keep opponents from resorting to a filibuster to block the measure. Still, it's uncertain whether the broader budget measure, which is aimed at reconciling spending with self-imposed budget ceilings, actually will be enacted by Congress.

"Now is the time," Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., the committee's chairman, said of developing the estimated 10.4 billion barrels of oil that geologists believe likely lies beneath the tundra in the northeastern corner of Alaska.

Environmentalists argue that drilling would harm wildlife, including polar bears (search), caribou and migratory birds that use the refuge's coastal strip.

The House repeatedly has approved developing the refuge's oil, but each time the measure has died in the Senate, where drilling supporters have failed to get the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. Unlike regular legislation, the budget process is not subject to a filibuster.