WASHINGTON — For a quarter-century, environmentalists have succeeded in blocking efforts to drill for oil in what they consider a pristine, cherished patch of tundra in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
But with sky-high fuel prices and a wider Republican majority in Congress, their long fight to keep oil companies out of the refuge looked to be in trouble. Then they got some help from an unexpected place: House Republicans angry over cuts to social programs.
House leaders put off plans Thursday to vote on the budget-cutting package because of opposition to issues unrelated to the Alaska refuge — deep cuts in Medicaid, food stamps and student loans. The leaders earlier were forced to jettison the Alaska drilling provision from the bill after a group of GOP moderates said they would not vote for the budget if ANWR were included.
They also dropped from the budget document plans to allow states to authorize oil and gas drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts — regions currently under a drilling moratorium.
Developing the refuge, where geologists believe 10.4 billion barrels of oil rest beneath a coastal strip of tundra, has been a top energy priority for President Bush and Republican leaders in Congress for years. Bush first called for its development in his 2000 presidential campaign.
The House in various forms passed authorization to drill in the refuge five times, but each time the measure died in the Senate, where drilling supporters couldn’t get the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
Over the years, protecting the refuge and its wildlife — caribou, polar bears, musk oxen and tens of thousands of migratory birds — became a cause celebre for environmentalists and conservationists of all political stripes.
But the strategy this time was to push the ANWR measure through as part of the budget bill, which is not subject to a filibuster. A decade ago a Republican-led Congress used the same tactic to get a drilling provision to the White House, only to have it vetoed by President Clinton.
Last week, the Senate voted 51-48 to endorse a requirement for the Interior Department to begin oil lease sales in ANWR within two years. The House seemed on the same path.
Environmentalists already had launched an intense lobbying campaign both in the congressional districts of moderate Republicans and on Capitol Hill.
Although the House had passed ANWR legislation five times, the environmentalists believed their best chance to block it this time was not in the Senate, but in the House where GOP moderates — unhappy about some of the social program cuts in the bill — were viewed as ready to buck their leaders over ANWR.
The lobbying had its effect.
Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., was among two dozen GOP moderates who on Thursday displayed pictures of scores of his constituents who had come to Washington to urge him not to approve ANWR drilling.
“You have to listen to the people you represent,” he said.
Reichert, a former sheriff in Seattle, was among about a dozen GOP lawmakers who favored deficit reduction, but also told the House leaders they would not vote for the bill if ANWR were included.
Democrats already were on record that they would unanimously oppose the budget cuts. So GOP moderates — those opposed to the entire bill and others opposed only to ANWR — had more leverage than they ever dreamed.
“Our voice is being listened to now more than it has in the past,” said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., a moderate who has fought ANWR drilling measure in the past, but this time also opposed many of the social spending cuts.
Drilling could still resurface
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., one of the House’s most vocal opponents to ANWR oil development, cautioned, however, that it’s too early to celebrate, especially since a final budget package — if one passes the House — will have to be meshed with the Senate bill that includes ANWR drilling.
“It would be a premature exaltation” to celebrate ... Today is just a temporary detour,” said Markey, adding that he’s certain the GOP leadership will put pressure on its moderates to change their mind about ANWR.
“The battle for the Arctic refuge is not over,” added William Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society.
Indeed, if the House bill passes the two chambers would appoint negotiators to work out differences between the bills. Senate Republicans could insist the ANWR drilling proposal be reinserted into the House bill, forcing a new vote by the full House.
“I think the bill ultimately will have ANWR in it,” said Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., a staunch pro-drilling lawmaker who is chairman of the House Resources Committee that has jurisdiction over the issue.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said Thursday he was disappointed that the House dropped the refuge language, but is not giving up the fight. “I’m not ever going to quit trying to get it done,” he said when asked about opening the refuge to oil development.
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