A House panel yesterday backed drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, advancing a key element of the Bush administration's energy plan.
The House Resources Committee endorsed drilling in the refuge's ecologically sensitive coastal plain as part of a package of energy measures approved by voice vote. Committee members rejected an effort by Democrats to strip the drilling provision from the measure by a vote of 30 to 13.
In previous years, the House has repeatedly supported similar measures, but those efforts were unsuccessful because of opposition in the Senate or from then-President Bill Clinton.
But this year, the prospects for drilling are stronger. Last month, the Senate included a provision allowing drilling in its budget resolution -- the first time the Senate has endorsed development in the refuge since President Bush took office.
The legislation approved by the Resources Committee will be merged with energy measures moving through other committees and could be considered by the full House as early as next week. The energy legislation is similar to what was approved by a House-Senate conference committee in 2003 but died because of a Senate filibuster.
The Ways and Means Committee yesterday approved an $8 billion package of energy tax breaks that will be included in the larger bill. Most of the benefits would go to large energy companies and include provisions designed to spur more domestic energy production and encourage construction of electrical transmission lines as a way of improving reliability.
Last night, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved the main portion of the energy bill after considering a number of amendments.
The Senate, which has not yet taken up an energy bill, is trying to rework the 2003 version of the legislation in hopes of forging a bipartisan compromise.
Discussion over drilling in the refuge echoed themes from debates over the issue that have taken place for years.
Opponents of drilling said oil development would mar the environment. "We should not despoil one of the last great, pristine areas in the world," said Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.).
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who led the effort to prevent drilling, said automobile mileage standards should be increased as a way to save oil before tapping the refuge. Earlier in the day, the Energy and Commerce Committee rejected his effort to increase mileage standards. "They don't have the nerve to take on Detroit," Markey said.
Supporters said drilling could be done without harming the caribou and other wildlife in the area. They displayed images of caribou roaming in oil fields on Alaska's North Slope, near the refuge.
Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.) said that the United States needs to produce more oil domestically and that pumping oil from the refuge is essential to that effort. "If we are going to improve the security of this country, we have to become less dependent on foreign sources of oil," he said.
Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) said residents of his state want drilling because it would provide jobs and fund government services. "If I thought for one moment that the environment would be hurt, I would not be for this," he said.