The Senate today moved closer to allowing oil companies to drill in an Alaskan wildlife refuge, narrowly defeating a provision that would have removed drilling authority from a massive budget reconciliation bill.
The entire package is scheduled for a vote later today, and the House plans to vote on its version of the bill next week. The two versions must then be reconciled by a House-Senate conference committee.
By a 51-48 vote, the Senate defeated an amendment sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) that would have stripped the bill of a provision authorizing oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
The Senate subsequently voted 86-13 to bar any exportation of oil eventually produced from the refuge, requiring instead that it be used domestically to help lower the nation's dependence on foreign oil.
A provision to allow drilling in the refuge was dropped from an energy bill that President Bush signed into law in August, but proponents in the Republican-controlled Senate attached it to the budget reconciliation bill. Under U.S. law, the budget bill cannot be filibustered, and Democrats thus cannot block the provision -- or the bill as a whole -- on a party-line vote.
Cantwell, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, accused drilling proponents of resorting to an "irresponsible manipulation of the budget process" in order to approve drilling in the refuge.
"Using backdoor tactics to destroy America's last great wild frontier will not solve our nation's energy problems and will do nothing to lower skyrocketing gas prices," she said in a statement.
Supporters of drilling in the refuge argue that the nation desperately needs the oil beneath ANWR's coastal plain, and that the oil can be produced without harming the environment or the area's wildlife. They also say development of the oil and gas reserves would create thousands of jobs. President Bush has repeatedly called for opening the wildlife refuge to drilling.
"American dependence on foreign oil threatens our national security," said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), a leading proponent of drilling. "We now rely on unstable and unfriendly regimes to meet our energy needs." Unless the United States steps up development of its own resources, he argued, the proportion of U.S. oil consumption that is met by imports will rise from 60 percent today to nearly 70 percent by 2025.
"The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is 19 million acres," Stevens said in a statement. "The area set aside for oil and gas exploration is 1.5 million acres. Because of advances in technology, only 2,000 acres of that will be needed for production."
He said ANWR's coastal plain holds between 5.7 billion and 16 billion barrels of oil and can yield production of 876,000 to 1.6 million barrels a day.
However, environmentalists point to Energy Department reports indicating that it would take a decade to start producing oil from ANWR, that peak production would not come until about 2025, and that even then the oil produced from the refuge would have a negligible impact on gasoline prices and oil imports.
Environmentalists also challenge the claims that drilling would not harm the refuge, saying that more than 500 spills a year have been reported from the adjacent Prudhoe Bay oil fields since 1996.
"We need to give our children a future less dependent on fossil fuel," Cantwell said. "According to the Energy Department's latest analysis, even if oil companies drill in the wildlife refuge and hit peak production, it will only lower gas prices by a penny per gallon."
Lydia Weiss, an Arctic National Wildlife Refuge specialist at Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington-based environmental group, said drilling opponents still hope to prevail despite the defeat of the Cantwell amendment. She said important differences remain between the Senate and House versions of the budget reconciliation bill and that the package could still founder over some "highly controversial measures," such as provisions on oil drilling on the Continental Shelf and cuts in the Medicaid and food stamp programs.
"We're calling on all senators who are interested in protecting this refuge" to vote against the budget reconciliation bill, Weiss said. "A vote for this budget bill is a vote to drill in the Arctic refuge."