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Senate Rejects Oil Drilling in Arctic Refuge

Eight Republicans join 43 Democrats and an independent to strip the proposal from a budget resolution. It's a major defeat for Bush.

March 20, 2003|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday narrowly rejected President Bush's bid to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, dealing a blow to a White House that has argued increasing domestic energy production is critical to national security.

Drilling supporters pointed to the war with Iraq as underscoring the need to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. But opponents contended that energy exploration in the Arctic area would ravage one of the nation's most pristine wildernesses, while barely making a dent in oil imports.

The tally was 52 to 48, with eight Republicans joining 43 Democrats and one independent in voting to strip the drilling proposal from a budget resolution.

The hotly debated issue appears dead at least for the year, but drilling supporters vowed to continue their fight. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), a leading drilling advocate, said: "There will be another vote, another day."

Wednesday's vote showed that even as lawmakers expressed their support for Bush in his role as commander in chief on the precipice of war, that backing does not carry over to controversial items on his domestic agenda.

"The rally effects around a president during war do not, in modern times, translate to the president getting his way on a domestic agenda," said James A. Thurber, a professor at American University in Washington.

White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said it was "unfortunate that the Senate missed an opportunity to increase our energy independence at a time when that's critically important."

With the outcome of the vote in doubt right up until the roll call, both sides worked furiously to solidify their support.

Stevens, who as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee wields considerable clout in the annual fights over project funding for the states, lobbied his colleagues. "People who vote against [drilling] today are voting against me, and I will not forget it," he said during debate on the issue.

Also lobbying for the drilling were Vice President Dick Cheney, who called several lawmakers, as well as representatives of the Teamsters, who support the drilling because of the jobs it would create, and Inupiat Eskimos, whose community counts on oil royalties to fund schools and other services.

On the other side, representatives of environmental groups stood outside the Senate chamber to press their case against the drilling. With them was a representative of the Gwich'in, an Alaskan tribe that opposes the drilling.

Lawmakers were told that within the environmental community, the vote on the drilling issue would be viewed as among the most important of the year. Some groups said they planned to highlight it on the report cards they issue ranking legislators on environmental issues.

Drilling supporters had hoped to finally win their decades-long fight after Republicans took control of the Senate in last year's election. While the drilling proposal passed the GOP-controlled House last year, it was blocked in the Senate by a Democratic-led filibuster.

Senate GOP leaders this time sought to get around a filibuster -- which requires 60 votes to end -- by attaching the drilling proposal to the budget measure. Under Senate rules, such measures are not subject to a filibuster.

Five Democrats -- some from energy-producing states -- joined 43 Republicans in supporting the drilling. But opponents lined up enough GOP senators -- many from states where environmentalism enjoys strong support -- to vote to strip the drilling provision from the budget resolution.

The Bush administration has called the Arctic refuge, in Alaska's northeast corner, the "single greatest prospect" for onshore oil and gas development of any place in the United States. Bush has proposed drilling on 1.5 million acres of the 19.6-million-acre refuge.

The government has estimated that there are 6 billion to 16 billion barrels of oil beneath the tundra. Opponents argue that only about 3.2 billion barrels could be recovered economically. The U.S. uses about 7 billion barrels of oil a year.

During heated debate Wednesday, each side presented sharply different visions of the drilling's potential effect.

Opponents flashed photos of a lush, green wilderness populated by caribou, polar bears and other wildlife that they argued would be endangered by energy exploration.

"Cast your eyes on this," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who led the opposition to the drilling. "One cannot paint anything quite as magnificent as what God has created."

Drilling supporters showed a picture of a barren, frozen tundra in the winter when, they said, drilling would take place.

Stevens accused "extreme environmental organizations" of spreading "propaganda of the worst" kind about the effects of drilling. He and other drilling proponents contended that technology has made it possible to extract the oil without damaging the environment.

Taking aim at Boxer, he said he had a message for her California constituents: "When the price of their gasoline goes up, call Sen. Boxer."

Suggesting that greater oil savings could be achieved through conservation, such as tougher miles-per-gallon rules for sport utility vehicles, Boxer responded: "We can do more for our troops if we just increase fuel economy."

Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, conceded that the fight over Arctic drilling is probably over for the year.

Others, however, said the measure could gain new life if energy prices spike. "Who knows what a prolonged war will do to energy prices?" said a Senate GOP aide.

California's other senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, joined Boxer in opposing drilling.

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