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Drilling Dispute Is Back

Policy: Environmental debate, now quiet, is likely to turn hot over the Arctic refuge issue.


Stilled by the events of Sept. 11, strong disagreements over the environment could resurface as early as this week to test the political truce in Washington.

Lawmakers are poised to resume a partisan fight over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And as they return to the nation's domestic agenda, they will have to contend with global warming, national forest protections, arsenic in drinking water and air quality.

All are issues that had put the environment near the center of the policy divide separating the White House and congressional Democrats.

That divide all but disappeared, or so it seemed, as Washington came together in response to the terrorist attacks. Major environmental groups laid down their swords, some purging their Web sites of anti-Bush rhetoric, delaying direct-mail appeals and encouraging members to redirect donations to rescue efforts, such as the American Red Cross.

Now signs of renewed strife are emerging as some Senate Republicans seek to make domestic energy a national security issue and dissenters rise to argue that a national emergency does not require sacrificing environmental goals. That discord could break out into the open when the Senate reconvenes this week, and especially if Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska) joins Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) in trying to force a vote on an energy bill that would allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Some Republican and Democratic Senate aides said last week that they did not expect Inhofe's effort to result in a vote because the leaders of both parties are against it.

Many environmentalists hope to delay a vote on the entire energy package until early next year, allowing more time for senators to scrutinize the controversial bill passed by the House this summer--and for the environmental movement to regain lost momentum.

Inhofe tried to force the Senate to vote last week on the energy legislation, by filing an amendment on an unrelated defense authorization bill. The effort by Inhofe and others brought that bill to a standstill.

When the Senate adjourned for a long weekend, Inhofe had not given up on his plan to offer the amendment unless he gets a commitment from the Senate leadership to take up energy legislation by a date certain.

The chairmen of two major Senate committees dismissed Inhofe's tactics as the wrong way to approach complicated legislation on such an important topic.

"I will not agree . . . to attempts to force through a one-sided energy bill or to short-circuit Senate consideration of these important issues," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Senate Energy Committee chairman.

Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.), Environment and Public Works chairman, warned his colleagues that Inhofe's amendments could hurt public health and environmental quality and raise greenhouse emissions at a time when the United States faces international criticism for failing to pay serious attention to climate-change issues.

"We shouldn't further encroach on the goodwill of our global neighbors at a time when we are seeking their support in our efforts against terrorism," Jeffords said.

But Murkowski said last week that the new war against terrorism makes it imperative that the United States develop oil reserves on its own soil, decreasing dependence on Middle Eastern oil. He wants speedy action on an energy bill.

The sparring could foreshadow a more wide-ranging debate. Since Sept. 11, lobbyists on both sides of the energy debate have remained relatively quiet. Neither environmentalists nor the Teamsters Union--a major force behind the House passage of energy legislation in July--has run television ads.

"Everybody has backed up and retrenched since the events of Sept. 11," said Jerry Hood, a Teamsters lobbyist.

But for environmentalists, the energy bill could be a line in the sand--the point at which any truce ends. For them, the challenge is how to be loyal Americans at a time of national emergency while being true to their values and their supporters.

Several environmental leaders talked frankly of their struggle to find the appropriate tone to fight Arctic drilling and tax incentives for the energy industry, which are part of the pending legislation.

On Friday, Maggie Fox, deputy executive director of the Sierra Club, expressed the dilemma felt by many environmentalists. "We are not going to sit back because of what happened Sept. 11 and have no voice. What we are trying to be sensitive about is, what is the appropriate way to approach this debate?"

Leaders of major environmental groups called a timeout shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"Now is a time for mourning, for reflection and for solutions to the immediate crisis at hand," read a message from Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope on the group's Internet home page. "Our nation faces other long-term problems and challenges, but now is not the time for those debates."

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