Republican gains in the Senate from last month's elections have pumped new life into the administration-backed move to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, prompting environmentalists to mount what one of them called "the fight of our lives" to defeat the proposal.
Key strategists for both sides agree that pro-ANWR-drilling forces have probably gained several new votes among Republicans, especially conservative southerners elected to replace anti-drilling Democrats. Judging by the newcomers' conservative and pro-industry philosophies, and in some cases previous votes or campaign statements, drilling advocates now appear to have a net gain of three seats, adding up to a 51-vote majority in the Senate, the strategists say.
Although the GOP gains do not guarantee passage of long-stalled legislation to lift the current ban on drilling in a section of the sprawling refuge on Alaska's north coast, it provides what may be the best chance in years for its enactment, according to key players on both sides of the fight.
"We are really optimistic" in light of the election results and other factors such as high gasoline prices and the nation's continued reliance on foreign oil, said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who, like the state she represents, is pushing hard to open the ANWR to drilling.
"We're going to have to fight this every step of the way," said Melinda Pierce, senior Washington representative for the Sierra Club, one of many environmental groups that are mounting an ambitious lobbying campaign to protect the refuge. "I think we're in for the fight of our lives."
But they also agree that the fight is far from over. "Clearly, the prospects [for passage] are better than ever before, but it's far from won," said Tim Profeta, counsel for the environment for Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), a leader of the anti-drilling forces. "This is a signature fight, and both sides will be loaded for bear."
The fight over drilling in the ANWR has raged for years and has become one of the best-known and most contentious fights between energy and environmental forces, reinforced by support from Republican administrations and opposition from Democratic ones. The last time a drilling initiative was passed by Congress was as part of a budget bill in 1995, and it was vetoed by President Bill Clinton.
Drilling advocates argue that the area has always been planned for energy production and that a significant amount of oil and gas can be recovered with minimal impact on the environment. Foes contend that drilling would produce less oil and more environmental damage than forecast by supporters, threatening a pristine and ecologically fragile area that teems with caribou, polar bears, migrating birds and other wildlife.
The issue last came to a vote in the Senate in 2003, when a proposal to open the way for drilling by including projected lease revenue in the congressional budget resolution failed 52 to 48, with eight Republicans joining all but five Democrats in opposition.
Without further complications, the GOP gains from last month's elections could be enough to include a go-ahead for drilling in the budget and in subsequent "reconciliation" legislation to implement it, neither of which can be filibustered by opponents. It takes 60 votes to break a filibuster, and Republicans concede they would fall well short of that number if they tried to pass the proposal on its own or as part of a broader energy bill.
But there are further complications. While using the budget avoids the pitfalls of a filibuster, it presents other potentially serious problems for pro-drilling forces.
Although the House has voted for drilling in the ANWR as part of energy legislation, it has not included it in its version of recent budgets, leaving the issue to the Senate, which has always been the most critical testing ground for the drilling issue.
A bigger question is whether Congress, despite Republican gains in both houses, can agree on a budget and on implementing legislation, which proved to be impossible in two of the past three years.
Even more problematic is the Senate itself. Several senators have voted both for and against drilling provisions on different occasions, and others have indicated some ambivalence on the issue.
Moreover, under Senate rules, a budget reconciliation bill can be challenged on several grounds, one of which bars including provisions for which revenue or outlay changes are incidental to other purposes of the proposal. If the Senate parliamentarian finds that the ANWR provision fits this description, it will take 60 votes to overturn the ruling.
Drilling foes can be expected to argue that, even counting revenue from leases, the money is incidental to the whole issue of petroleum exploration in the Alaska refuge. "If they use the budget process to get around the fact they do not have the votes under the normal legislative process, that opens a huge can of worms," said Jim Waltman, director of refuges and wildlife for the Wilderness Society.
Meanwhile, environmental groups are gearing up for a major grass-roots and lobbying effort against the proposal, including mobilizing members to write letters to the editor, contact their lawmakers and reach out to other groups to join the effort. Grass-roots coordinators are being deployed and slide shows are being organized, the Sierra Club's Pierce said.