Senate Democrats opposed to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge failed Thursday to strip the measure from a massive budget package as supporters of exploration argued that the oil is needed to help break America of its import habit.
Environmentalists, who believe strongly the refuge in northeast Alaska should continue to be off limits to oil companies to protect the area’s wildlife, had acknowledged that it was a long shot to get the provision killed and now are concentrating on defeating the overall budget bill.
A vote on the budget measure, which includes a myriad of spending cuts from food stamps to welfare funds, was expected later in the day.
An amendment offered by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., that would have removed drilling authority for the refuge, was defeated 51-48. She called the drilling proposal a gimmick that will have little impact on oil or gasoline prices, or U.S. energy security.
Vote to ban export
Later the Senate in an 86-13 vote, required that none of the oil from the refuge can be exported. Otherwise “there is no assurance that even one drop of Alaskan oil will get to hurting Americans,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a drilling opponent who nevertheless sponsored the no-export provision.
Drilling supporters, including President Bush, who has made opening the refuge’s coastal plain a top energy priority, argued that the country needs the estimated 10.5 billion barrels of oil that lies beneath the coastal plain. The oil represents a key to improving the country’s energy security, they said.
Today about 60 percent of the oil used in the United States is imported. The measure calls for the Interior Department to issue its first two leases for refuge oil within two years.
“America needs this American oil,” said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. He called opposition to pumping the refuge’s oil “ostrich-like” and said it “ill-serves our nation this time of energy crisis.” He called the oil “crucial to the nation’s attempt to achieve energy independence.”
No oil is likely to flow from the refuge for 10 years and peak production of about 1 million barrels a day would be expected about 2025, according to the Energy Department.
Gasoline prices impacted?
Environmentalists have cited a report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration that concluded that ANWR oil would only slightly affect gasoline prices and marginally lower the growth of imports by 2025 when imported oil would account for 64 percent of U.S. demand instead of 68 percent without the refuge’s oil.
“Using backdoor tactics to destroy America’s last great wild frontier will not solve our nation’s energy problems and will do nothing to lower skyrocketing gas prices” Cantwell argued. She dismissed industry arguments that the refuge can be drilled with little if any adverse impact on the environment or wildlife.
The Prudhoe Bay oil fields, just to the west of the refuge, and the Alaska oil pipeline have resulted in 504 spills a year since 1996 and there’s no reason to assume greater protection in the refuge, maintained Cantwell.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, countered that modern drilling techniques and stringent environmental regulations will safeguard the coastal plain, a focal point for caribou, migratory birds, musk oxen, polar bears and other wildlife.
“We can develop ANWR oil without harm to the environment and to the wildlife that live there,” said Murkowski, adding that development would create tens of thousands of jobs both in Alaska and elsewhere.
Lease sales mean revenue
The provision in the budget bill assumes $2.5 billion in federal revenue from oil lease sales over the next five years. Alaska would get a like amount as well as half of future oil royalties from the refuge.
That’s one reason Alaska’s senators have fought for years to try to open the refuge, which was set aside in 1961 for special protection, to oil exploration and development. Repeatedly, however, they have been thwarted by opponents who resorted to the filibuster, which takes 60 votes to overcome, whenever ANWR drilling legislation emerged.
But the budget resolution is not subject to a filibuster. In a similar strategy, Congress in 1995 approved ANWR’s energy development, but the budget measure was vetoed by then President Clinton, who opposed drilling.
The House is also considering a budget bill that includes refuge drilling. It is expected to be taken up next week.