And the Saga on Arctic Oil Drilling Continues

Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where caribou graze, is safe from drilling for now.
Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where caribou graze, is safe from drilling for now. (U.s. Fish And Wildlife Service Via Associated Press)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 22, 2005

Lawmakers have feuded over drilling in Alaska's wilderness for a quarter-century, ever since Congress in 1980 passed a law saying only it could determine whether drilling was permissible in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In 1995, the leaders of the new Republican majority in Congress thought they finally had succeeded in a long-sought goal by passing a bill permitting oil drilling in the refuge. But President Bill Clinton vetoed the measure under prodding from environmentalists.

Emboldened by their electoral gains and President Bush's reelection in 2004, Republicans thought they had gained enough clout on Capitol Hill this year to muscle the bill through as part of the annual budget process.

But yesterday, proponents were thwarted once again. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) hoped he had his adversaries cornered when he attached the drilling plan to an essential measure to fund ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But two Republicans joined 42 Democrats in filibustering the defense bill that would have authorized drilling. Last night, the Senate agreed to pass the defense bill, without the drilling provision.

Yesterday's procedural vote -- in which drilling supporters failed to gain enough votes to end the filibuster and force action -- gave environmentalists a rare legislative win on Capitol Hill, and it ensured that an oil-rich 1.5 million-acre stretch of the Arctic will remain untouched for the immediate future.

The refuge, which has at least 5 billion barrels of oil beneath its surface, shelters birthing caribou as well as musk oxen and millions of migratory birds each year.

"This is the greatest environmental victory of the year," said Lydia Weiss, a lobbyist for the advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife. "We are thrilled the Senate did not go down the slippery slope of holding a defense bill hostage over this toxic legislation."

The failure of drilling advocates to push forward a measure that has spent so long on the brink of passage highlights some complicated politics within the Republican Party. GOP leaders had to back down earlier this year when moderate Republicans in the House protested a move to add it to a comprehensive budget bill.

But Stevens, the Senate's most influential drilling proponent, refused to back down, tacking the measure onto the defense spending measure. His blunt lobbying tactics were even directed toward his GOP colleagues. In an e-mail, he said that if the defense bill failed to go through this would upend the budget process generally -- endangering favored projects in their states.

The warning worked with moderate GOP Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine.), who issued a statement yesterday after the vote saying that she worried an impasse over the defense appropriations bill would endanger subsidized low-income heating funds.

Two key Republicans, Lincoln D. Chafee (R.I.) and Mike DeWine (Ohio), were unmoved, arguing that Arctic drilling would not solve the nation's energy problems.

"We've got to find other ways to be energy independent," DeWine said in an interview.

Stevens's year-end maneuvering also infuriated Senate Democrats: At one point during Sunday night's debate, Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) slammed his microphone down and refused to allow Stevens to respond to criticism. Yesterday, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) said Stevens was to blame for holding up money for the military.

"I am not the one threatening support for our troops in the middle of a war," Lieberman said.

These senators were bolstered by environmental groups' ambitious media and grass-roots lobbying campaign this week, which featured full-page ads in eight national, regional and Capitol Hill newspapers, and thousands of phone calls to key senators. Former president Jimmy Carter plotted strategy with Reid last weekend and spoke yesterday with Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who voted against the Arctic measure.

The American Petroleum Institute condemned the Senate action, saying "its refusal to seize this opportunity does a disservice to American consumers and fails to acknowledge that the consequences of inaction are adverse and significant."

And even the refuge's most passionate advocates said they expected another drilling fight next year.

"We've been arguing about ANWR for the 21 years I've been here -- it's not going to go away," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). "I'm confident we will see another debate on ANWR."

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