updated 3/17/2005 9:08:28 AM ET 2005-03-17T14:08:28

Amid the backdrop of soaring oil and gasoline prices, a sharply divided Senate on Wednesday voted to open the ecologically rich Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling, delivering a major energy policy win for President Bush.

The Senate, by a 51-49 vote, rejected an attempt by Democrats and GOP moderates to remove a refuge drilling provision from next year’s budget.

The action, assuming Congress agrees on a budget, clears the way for approving drilling in the refuge later this year, drilling supporters said.

The oil industry has sought for more than two decades to get access to billions of barrels of oil believed to lie beneath the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska.

Video: Battle over drilling Drilling supporters acknowledged after the vote that for refuge development to get final approval Congress must still pass a final budget with the Senate provision included, something Congress was unable to do last year.

Still, “this is a big step,” said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who said he had tried for 24 years to open the refuge, but failed because Democrats blocked the effort through filibusters. The budget is immune from a filibuster, meaning drilling supporters will need only a majority — not the 60 votes required to break a filibuster — to succeed when the issue comes up for final action later this year.

Impact on wildlife feared
Environmentalists have fought such development and argued that despite improved environmental controls, a web of pipelines and drilling platforms would harm calving caribou, polar bears and millions of migratory birds that use the coastal plain.

Seeking to sidestep a Democratic filibuster, Republican leaders put the Alaska refuge provision into a budget document that is immune to a filibuster under Senate rules. Opponents had hoped to garner the 51 votes needed to strip the provision from the budget.

During several hours of Senate debate Tuesday, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said that even at peak production the refuge would account for less than 2.5 percent of U.S. oil needs. “How in the world can this be the centerpiece of our energy policy?” asked Durbin, arguing that more conservation and more fuel efficient automobiles would save more oil than the Alaska refuge would produce.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., a staunch supporter of drilling, said the refuge’s oil represents “the most significant onshore production capacity” in the country.

“Some people say we ought to conserve more. They say we ought to conserve instead of producing this oil,” Domenici said. “But we need to do everything. We have to conserve and produce where we can.”

‘Fragile environment’ acknowledged
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, rejected claims that oil rigs and pipelines would ruin a national environmental treasure, as critics charge. “We know we’ve got to do it right. ... It’s a fragile environment,” said Murkowski, adding that oil companies in Alaska are subject to the most stringent environmental requirements in the world.

Democrats complained that an issue as divisive as opening a pristine area of wild land, specifically protected by Congress from development, should be debated independently and not as part of the budget process.

“They want to sneak this into the budget,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

Drilling supporters have tried for years to allow oil companies access to what is believed to be billions of barrels of oil beneath the refuge’s 1.5-million acre coastal plain.

President Bush has made access to the refuge’s oil a key part of his energy agenda. Last week, Bush declared that 10 billion barrels of oil could be pumped from the refuge and that it could be done “with almost no impact on land or wildlife.”

Environmentalists argue that while new technologies have reduced the drilling footprint, ANWR’s coastal plain still would contain a spider web of pipelines that would disrupt calving caribou and disturb polar bears, musk oxen and the annual influx of millions of migratory birds.

‘No effect’
Developing the oil “is going to have no effect in the long-term on America’s energy future,” Kerry told reporters. Even if the refuge were to supply 1 million barrels of oil a day, at its peak expected production, the United States would remain heavily dependent on foreign oil unless there were serious efforts to reduce consumption, he said.

How much oil would be economically recoverable from the refuge is still unclear.

Only one exploratory well has been drilled, and the results have been kept secret. The U.S. Geological Survey, using seismic studies, estimated in 1998 that between 5.6 billion to 16 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil is likely to be beneath the refuge’s tundra.

But how much of that oil would be attractive to oil companies would depend on the price of oil. In recent years a number of major oil companies have stopped lobbying for opening ANWR, focusing their activities elsewhere in the world.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton said she has no doubt that oil companies would seek out exploratory leases in the Alaska refuge. If given a go-ahead from Congress, she said, she would expect to begin offering leases in 2007 with refuge oil beginning to flow down the Alaska pipeline “seven or 10 years after that.”

Last week, the House refused to include an ANWR provision in its budget document, although any differences between the Senate and House versions would likely be resolved in negotiations.

The House has repeatedly passed measures over the years to allow drilling in ANWR only to see the legislation stalled in the Senate.

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