WASHINGTON — Opponents of oil drilling in an Alaskan wildlife refuge are going on the offense after playing defense for a quarter of a century. They want the new Democratic-led Congress to make an oft-challenged drilling ban permanent.
Legislation introduced in the House on Friday would make the oil-rich 1.2 million-acre coastal strip of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a permanently protected wilderness and end repeated efforts to open the area east of the Prudhoe oil field to energy companies.
"The consensus is that there should not be drilling in the refuge, so the logical next step is to pass legislation which turns it into a wilderness," Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., chief sponsor of the legislation, said in an interview.
Markey has introduced similar legislation in each of the last three congressional sessions. However, the House has approved drilling in the refuge a half dozen times, only to see the effort die in the Senate were supporters couldn't muster the 60 votes to overcome a likely filibuster.
This time, with Democrats in the majority and a number of moderate Republicans on record as opposed to drilling, Markey believe he has a good chance in the House to go one step farther and declare the refuge permanently off-limits to oil development.
A co-sponsor of the bill is Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn.
Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, also says this time is different.
"What's changed is we won't have those daily assaults" from pro-drilling forces, she said. "We are definitely on the offense."
Environmentalists said they plan to mobilize the same people that have fought drilling proposals in past years behind the Markey-Ramstad legislation.
Two years ago, when Republicans expanded their majorities in both the House and Senate, the likelihood of opening the refuge to oil development gained new momentum. It already had been a top energy priority of President Bush since 2001.
"Many people had written the obituary for the refuge," said Melinda Pierce, legislative director of the Sierra Club. But a concerted push by pro-drilling forces fell short.
Now Markey believes the momentum is going the other way.
"We now have a majority of House members that have publicly said they oppose any drilling in the refuge. In the previous Congress we were battling the Republicans in the majority who wanted to drill."
Tougher Senate battle
Environmentalists know that in the Senate they will need 60 votes to get the wilderness designation, with the filibuster threat coming from Republicans this time. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who has battled to open the refuge to oil drilling for a quarter century, has not given up.
The coastal strip of ANWR, as the refuge is commonly referred to, is believed to contain 10.5 billion barrels of oil, approaching the size of the Prudhoe Bay field to the west. At peak production the refuge could supply 1 million barrels a day by 2025, according to the Interior Department.
On the other hand, to conservationists the refuge's coastal strip represents the ultimate wild place to be protected. They compare it to the Serengeti in Africa because of the wildlife that abound: polar bears, musk oxen, caribou and millions of migratory birds that fly there as part of their annual migration.
Drilling proponents argue that modern technology can limit the footprint on the coastal tundra and develop the oil without disturbing the wildlife.
Bush, who called for opening the refuge during his 2000 presidential campaign, repeatedly has said its environment can be protected alongside oil rigs. He views the refuge's oil as essential to lessening America's dependence on foreign energy sources.
"Our addiction to oil is real (but) drilling in the refuge would amount to a declaration that we remain in denial about this addiction," he said. "There are some places in our world that are so rare and so special, that we have a responsibility to protect them."
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