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Alaska Oil Drilling Plan Faces Energetic Opposition, EPA Head Concedes


WASHINGTON — A top Bush administration official conceded Sunday that it will be "very difficult" for the White House to win congressional approval of its signature energy policy proposal to open an Alaskan wildlife refuge to oil drilling.

The official, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman, also indicated that an administration task force on energy policy probably will not make the Alaska drilling proposal the central focus of its recommendations to the president later this spring.

"As far as our report goes, we didn't specifically say you must drill in" the wildlife refuge, Whitman, who is a member of the task force, said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "We will be recommending a range of choices."

Whitman's comments came as part of a concerted administration effort on the 31st annual Earth Day to defend President Bush's record on the environment. That effort capped a week in which Bush moved aggressively to counter criticism that he is more concerned about business interests than environmental protection.

In his early months in office, Bush has come under heavy criticism from environmentalists--including some fellow Republicans--for decisions to roll back or delay implementation of environmental rules adopted by President Clinton in the waning days of his administration, including one to tighten restrictions on arsenic in drinking water.

More recently, however, Bush has taken a different tack and upheld several Clinton policies backed by environmentalists, such as rules to reduce lead emissions and expand wetlands protection.

In defending Bush's overall environmental record Sunday, administration officials acknowledged that they had a public relations problem on their hands.

"Look, nobody's deaf, dumb and blind over there and everybody knows the environment is important and we saw how things have been portrayed," said Whitman in a separate interview on ABC's "This Week."

"At the end of [Bush's] term, people will see the air is cleaner and the water is purer than when he took office," Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton said later on CNN's "Late Edition." "We need to get the message across on that."

Democrats, meanwhile, continued to lambaste the administration's record, despite the apparent pro-environmental turn of recent days.

"Maybe there are some folks in the Bush administration who think they have gone too far," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) on "Face the Nation." But he added, "This is an administration that for the most part is headed in the wrong direction."

Lieberman threatened to subpoena administration officials for information on how they reached their decisions on arsenic and other issues if they do not cooperate with an investigation he is conducting into whether Bush's agencies studied both sides of the issues.

Of the environmental issues facing Bush in Congress, few are as controversial as the Alaska drilling proposal, which is a centerpiece of his efforts to increase domestic energy production. Bush has argued that opening 1 1/2 million acres of the 19.6-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration could help reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

But opponents say drilling could ruin one of the nation's most precious unspoiled wildlife habitats. They argue that it would do little to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign energy supplies.

The idea faces such a tough fight in Congress that Republicans did not include it in the policy assumptions of the budget resolutions passed by the House and Senate recently. That does not preclude later action on legislation to open up the refuge to drilling, but it was a signal that the opposition includes enough Republicans to make prospects dim, especially in the Senate, which is divided 50-50 between the two parties. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) has pledged to lead a filibuster, which would take 60 votes to overcome.

There are some signs that Bush is shying away from expending the political capital it would take to turn Congress around on the issue. He acknowledged the toughness of the fight at a news conference last month. And in the current issue of Time magazine, Bush political advisor Karl Rove was quoted as telling a fellow Republican that Bush was not going to push the drilling proposal.

Asked about that report, Norton told CNN she spoke with Rove and was assured that "he still believes that it is something we should push forward with."

Whitman's spokesman cautioned that the energy task force had not completed its report and that no options have been taken off the table. But Whitman acknowledged on "This Week" that the Alaska drilling proposal "has to go through the Congress in order to happen, and it's going to be very difficult."

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