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House Drops Bid to Open Refuge, Coasts to Drilling

GOP concessions to moderates may ease passage of a budget bill. But a mining measure could mean the sale of Western public lands.

November 10, 2005|Richard Simon, Joel Havemann and Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — In a rare victory for environmentalists in the House of Representatives, Republican leaders Wednesday night abandoned a measure to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.

They also jettisoned a provision to relax a long-standing ban on new energy exploration off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. However, they apparently left in the budget package a mining law provision that would permit the sale of public lands in the West for private development.

A rewrite of the Mining Law of 1872, it has drawn less attention than the Arctic drilling provision but could have a farther-reaching effect on public lands. Drafted by the House Resources Committee, the measure would allow the sale of potentially millions of federal acres, including national park and forest holdings.

Such a law could mean "the biggest privatization of federal land in the last 100 years," said John Leshy, who was the Interior Department's top lawyer in the 1990s and is now a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law. "Nothing like this has ever surfaced before."

The proposal would lift an 11-year-old congressional moratorium on mining patents, letting mining companies buy federal land with valuable mineral deposits for nominal fees. It would also make it easier to purchase federal land for nonmining uses, dropping the requirement that the acreage contain a valuable mineral discovery. And it would let the public stake new claims next to existing mining claims and buy that adjacent land for economic development unrelated to mining.

The concessions to moderate Republicans on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge grew out of the party leadership's effort to salvage the broad spending-cut bill to which the oil-drilling and mining measures were attached.

Even with the drilling provisions gone, today's House floor vote on the bill, which would cut more than $50 billion over five years from federal benefit programs, will probably be close.

A spokesman for House Resources Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy) said Pombo was inclined to oppose the bill "if it does nothing to increase domestic energy supplies and lower prices."

Wednesday's developments do not kill the prospect of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Senate included drilling in its spending-cut bill, passed last week, and the provision could survive an eventual House-Senate compromise.

Still, the House action was an odd twist in the decades-old fight over the oil beneath the refuge. The House has been far less friendly to environmentalists than the Senate in recent years and has endorsed Arctic drilling, only to see the Senate kill it.

"We win for now," Sierra Club lobbyist Melinda Pierce said. "It's going to come back, no doubt. For them, they win once and it's all over. For us, we win, and we just live to fight another day."

In a letter to GOP leadership this week, about two dozen moderate House Republicans said they would not vote for a bill that contained the provision on Arctic drilling, which would threaten a "national treasure." The spending-cut bill is "far too important to jeopardize" by including it, they wrote.

A spokesman for REP America, a group of Republican activists who support environmental conservation, praised the legislators who opposed the provision.

"We are particularly pleased that many of them have already warned leadership against trying to put Arctic drilling back into the legislation in conference with the Senate," said David Jenkins, government affairs director of REP America.

Drilling supporters estimate that 10 billion barrels of oil lie beneath the refuge's tundra. The United States consumes about 20 million barrels of oil a day. Drilling opponents contend that opening the area to oil exploration would endanger wildlife and spoil a unique environment while doing little to bring down gasoline prices, because it would be years before any oil discovered could reach the marketplace.

Supporters wanted to attach the drilling measure to the budget bill to get around filibusters that in the past have blocked such provisions. Halting a filibuster takes 60 votes, but budget legislation cannot be filibustered -- meaning the bill would need a simple majority, 51 votes.

Although the mining proposal from the House Resources Committee excludes national parks and wilderness areas, a caveat recognizes "valid existing rights" -- which critics say means that pockets of national park land could be sold. There are 903 mining claims, averaging 20 acres each, in the park system nationwide that predate the parks' establishment. Most of those claims are in California, including 432 in the Mojave National Preserve and 286 in Death Valley National Park.

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