The Senate Energy Committee approved a bill yesterday that could open up for drilling a potentially oil-rich section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska.
The measure was bitterly contested by environmentalists but viewed by industry as an oil bonanza rivaling the development of Prudhoe Bay. It would authorize the Interior Department to open 1.5 million acres on the coastal plain of the refuge, which totals 19 million acres.
The Energy Committee's approval, by a vote of 11 to 8, followed a series of markup sessions in which various amendments designed to weaken or kill the legislation were turned back.
The Interior Department has estimated that there is a 1-in-5 chance that the northern tip of the refuge contains economically recoverable oil.
If there is any, the department says, there is a 50 percent chance that the amount totals more than 3.2 billion barrels, and a 5 percent chance that it totals 9 billion barrels.
Prudhoe Bay contained a little more than 9 billion barrels when it was tapped in 1975. It is now at peak production, 1.8 million barrels a day, and will start to decline soon.
The United States uses about 6.2 billion barrels a year, so 3.2 billion barrels would represent about 188 days' worth.