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Arctic Drilling Gets New Push by GOP

The move by House and Senate leaders reignites a controversy that could threaten passage of a measure to overhaul the nation's energy policy.

September 23, 2003|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Congressional Republican leaders on Monday launched a last-ditch push for President Bush's bid to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling, reigniting a controversy that could complicate efforts to pass the pending overhaul of national energy policy.

Drilling proponents acknowledge that they face a battle in the Senate, where a number of Republicans have joined a majority of Democrats in threatening to filibuster the entire energy bill if Arctic drilling is included.

Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, had earlier decided against including the drilling measure -- one of the nation's most contentious environmental issues -- in the Senate energy bill unless he was confident he could overcome a filibuster.

Although he did not appear any closer to mustering the votes for his side, Domenici joined Rep. W. J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, on Monday in releasing a "discussion draft" of legislation that would authorize the drilling.

Domenici said that if he could not get the 60 Senate votes to overcome a filibuster, he would drop his efforts to include the drilling measure in an energy bill. But he vowed that "between now and the hour when that decision must be made, I will work relentlessly for those votes."

Drilling proponents plan to step up lobbying efforts in several ways. They said they will try to win over senators by pointing to measures in the energy bill that would benefit their states, such as proposals to increase the use of corn-based ethanol in the nation's gasoline supply and boost energy assistance to low-income families for heating and cooling.

Pro-drilling forces have sought to frame the drilling as vital to national security and economic growth.

"I'm counting on the will of the American people and the bipartisan appeal of several provisions in the bill to bring us the [Arctic refuge] votes," Domenici said. "For now, it's on the table for some serious discussion."

Opponents contend that drilling will damage one of the nation's most precious wilderness areas, while barely making a dent in U.S. reliance on imported oil. They said it would be years before the Alaska oil could even be brought to production.

The House earlier this year authorized Arctic drilling, and in an effort to build support proposed limiting the production site to 2,000 acres of the 19.6-million-acre refuge.

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

Political analysts called the effort a symbolic gesture designed to play to the GOP base.

"It doesn't have a chance of passage," said Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Washington.

Bill Wicker, an aide to New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the new effort shows "just how out of touch some of these folks are with reality."

Domenici and Tauzin are the top Republican negotiators trying to reconcile differences between House and Senate energy bills. The legislation, which includes measures to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and to strengthen the electric grid, has gained urgency since the recent massive blackout in the Northeast.

The Bush administration has called the Arctic refuge the "single greatest prospect" in the United States for onshore oil and gas development.

The government estimates there are 6 billion to 16 billion barrels of oil beneath the tundra. Opponents argue, however, that only about 3.2 billion barrels can be recovered economically.

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