The Bush administration and Senate Republicans intensified their push yesterday to allow oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a measure that has for years been thwarted by fierce opposition.
As oil and gasoline prices flirted with record highs, GOP lawmakers said opening the refuge would help hold down costs and reduce U.S. reliance on imported oil.
President Bush pushes his energy policy in a speech at the Franklin County Veterans Memorial in Columbus, Ohio.
(J. Scott Applewhite -- AP)
In the Senate, Republicans announced a budget plan that calls for drilling in the refuge. Republicans said their chances of approving the measure have improved as a result of the November elections, which added several members to their ranks.
The legislative effort was bolstered by President Bush, who repeated his calls to open the refuge, known as ANWR, as part of a broad energy legislation package.
"Developing a small section of ANWR would not only create thousands of new jobs, but it would eventually reduce our dependence on foreign oil by up to a million barrels of oil a day. And that's important," Bush said in a speech in Columbus, Ohio. "Congress needs to look at the science and look at the facts and send me a bill that includes exploration in ANWR for the sake of our country."
The push for drilling renews a debate in Congress that has dragged on for years, as Democrats and a handful of Republicans have defeated efforts to open the refuge.
The debate is over the environmental impact and benefits of drilling in a small portion of the 19 million-acre refuge. Drilling would occur within about 1.5 million acres of the coastal plain. Bush said yesterday that all of the refuge's oil could be reached by drilling on 2,000 acres. Opponents disputed that and said drilling would mar the environment and provide little benefit.
Government models suggest that if opened, the coastal plain of the refuge could produce nearly 1 million barrels of oil a day in 2025. The reduction in imports would be modest, according to data from the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration. With oil from the refuge, the agency's models indicate the United States would import oil to meet 65 percent of its needs in 2025 vs. 68 percent without it.
Senate Democrats vowed to fight drilling in the refuge, though they were unsure they could muster the needed votes to block passage.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), the top Democrat on the Energy Committee, said that he is convinced "there is significant impact wherever the drilling apparatus is located" and that the activity would tarnish the refuge. "I don't think it is a major solution to our energy problems," he added.
In the Senate, supporters of the measure said introducing it as part of the budget resolution would allow for passage with a 51-vote majority. If the measure were introduced separately, a 60-vote majority would be needed to block a filibuster, a delaying tactic that has been used in previous years to defeat drilling in the refuge.
The Senate Budget Committee is expected to vote on the measure today. The resolution anticipates the Energy and Natural Resources Committee would write legislation opening the refuge. Panel Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) supports drilling and returned this week from a fact-finding trip to the refuge.
In the House, the refuge is expected to be included in a more broad energy bill. A spokesman for the House Committee on Resources said that Chairman Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.) planned a vote on the refuge along with several other aspects of an energy bill by early April.
Some oil companies are keenly interested in drilling in the refuge and said they could do so using modern techniques that are environmentally safe and require less terrain than in years past.