Citing the public outcry over $3-a-gallon gasoline and America’s heavy reliance on foreign oil, the House voted Thursday to open part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling, knowing the prospects for Senate approval were slim.
Drilling proponents contend that the refuge on Alaska’s North Slope would provide 1 million barrels a day of additional domestic oil at peak production and reduce the need for imports.
But opponents to developing what environmentalists argue is a pristine area where drilling will harm caribou, polar bears and migratory birds, said Congress should pursue conservation and alternative energy sources that would save more oil than would be tapped from the refuge.
The House voted 225-201 to direct the Interior Department to open oil leases within the coastal strip of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — an area of 1.5 million acres that is thought likely to hold about 11 billion barrels of recoverable oil.
Tapping the refuge is a key part of the Bush administration’s national energy plan to boost domestic oil supplies and reduce U.S. reliance on petroleum imports. The administration has vowed that any development would cover just 2,000 acres, which opponents say that much would still create problems for wildlife.
Stalled in Senate
But the action may be little more than symbolic. Arctic refuge development, while approved by the House five times, repeatedly has been blocked in the Senate where drilling proponents have been unable to muster the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
“We need to develop energy, here at home. ... We can’t say no to everything,” declared Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., who pressed for a House vote on opening the refuge that lies east of the declining Prudhoe Bay oil fields 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
The refuge was set aside for protection in 1960 and expanded by Congress to 19 million acres in 1980 with a stipulation that its oil — limited to the coastal strip — could be developed, but only if Congress directs to do so.
The federal government would share revenues equally with the state.
While oil companies have long eyed the area where federal geologists estimate anywhere from 5.4 billion to as much as 16 billion barrels of oil may be recoverable, environmentalists it as among its top priorities for protection.
“There are simply some places that should be off limits to drilling. The Arctic refuge should be one of them,” said Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif.
The coastal strip is a calving area for caribou, home to polar bears and musk oxen, and a seasonal destination for millions of migratory birds.
Drilling opponents cited an Energy Department analysis that ANWR’s oil would have little impact on gasoline prices and reduce imports by only a few percentage points. Currently 60 percent of the 21 million barrels of oil used daily in the United States comes from imports.
Advocates for opening the refuge to energy development said the tundra and its wildlife can be protected using modern drilling techniques and environmental restrictions. They argued the additional domestic oil would help move the country toward more energy independence.
Congress approved drilling in the refuge in 1994, but President Clinton vetoed the bill.
Had Clinton not issued his veto “we would have had a million barrels of oil today,” said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. “We should be drilling off shore, we should be drilling in the Rockies and most of all we should be drilling in the Arctic refuge.”
Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., countered that had Congress passed improved auto fuel economy measures 11 years ago when they were considered, today “we would save far more oil than ANWR would produce.”
“This Congress hasn’t voted on a single conservation measure since gasoline hit $3 a gallon,” said Boehlert.
“Rather than debating how we could increase the fuel efficiency standards (of cars) over the next few years, we are debating about a bill that won’t produce the first barrel of oil for 10 years and it will come from a pristine wildlife refuge,” complained Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a leading drilling opponent.
Alaska senators make push
In the Senate, Alaska’s two Republican lawmakers said this week that they would continue to push to advance drilling there.
Sen. Ted Stevens, chairman of the Commerce Committee, said drilling could be included in a package of energy legislation that Republicans are drafting for possible consideration this summer.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said she has asked Democrats to support a plan to open the refuge that would also require an increase in corporate average fuel economy standards for auto makers, otherwise known as CAFE.
“I’ve been going to them,” Murkowski told reporters. “I’ve had no one slam the door in my face,” though there have been no solid commitments from Democrats.
Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, reiterated that refuge drilling was a “non-starter” no matter what. Even though he has pushed for CAFE standard increases, Durbin said, he would oppose combining fuel standard increases with refuge drilling.
“I don’t think that is an honest bargain,” he told reporters earlier this week.
Not tied to Gulf drilling
Some Republicans had hoped to attach refuge drilling to legislation that would open nearly 3 million acres of federal waters in the eastern Gulf of Mexico to energy exploration.
But a bill that would open the area off Florida to drilling has run aground in the Senate because of opposition from Florida lawmakers, said Sen. Pete Domenici, chairman of the Energy Committee and the bill’s sponsor.
The original proposal would have opened 2.9 million acres in the Outer Continental Shelf 100 miles off Florida to development, but Florida lawmakers have said they will oppose the bill unless it bans drilling less than 125 miles off the coast, Domenici said.
“You can’t put together a very viable package” under those limitations, Domenici said.
Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, has threatened to filibuster the bill -- or talk it to death -- if it comes to a full Senate vote.
Republicans say U.S. consumers need the energy to head off a supply crunch, and that the area’s 7.2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas could heat nearly 6 million homes for 15 years.