A controversial plan to allow oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is likely to move forward now that there will be enough votes in the Senate to push the measure ahead.
When the new Congress meets in January, the Senate will have three more members than it does now who favor opening the refuge to energy exploration. The Senate has been the last significant obstacle to drilling approval.
Environmentalists say drilling in the refuge would despoil one of the USA's last pristine wildernesses, a place where caribou and wolves roam. Industry groups and Alaskan politicians say the refuge holds enough oil — the source of gasoline — to lessen U.S. dependence on foreign supplies from places like Iraq.
Both Democratic and Republican leaders say that as a result of the Nov. 2 elections, the Senate will almost certainly muster the votes to overturn the existing ban on ANWAR drilling. That vote could come as early as April. President Bush and the House of Representatives have long favored drilling.
"The votes are just not there to defeat it," says Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, senior Democrat on the energy committee and a longtime foe of drilling in the refuge.
Asked whether the Senate will at last approve oil production from the refuge, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, replies: "Oh yes, yes, yes."
The resignation of Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, announced Monday, is not likely to affect the drilling debate. He supported drilling in the refuge, and whoever succeeds him will probably share that opinion.
"The administration's position is that we need to develop more domestic (energy) sources, including the proven oil reserves in Alaska," says Jeanne Lopatto, an Energy Department spokeswoman.
The Senate has been environmentalists' best hope for preventing development of the refuge. But if the Senate overturns the drilling ban, opponents say they would take the matter to court.
Democrats say supporters are likely to attach a pro-drilling provision to a budget resolution or reconciliation bill next spring. They tried to do so in 2003, but the provision was killed by a vote of 52-48.
The Senate still has enough Democrats to use the stalling technique of a filibuster, which takes 60 votes to overturn. But Senate rules prevent using a filibuster on budget resolution and reconciliation bills, says Bill Wicker, a spokesman for the Democratic members of the Senate energy committee.
Oil companies don't openly express enthusiasm for starting work in the refuge.
"We'll evaluate that opportunity and assess it against other exploration opportunities ... and then we'll decide," says Daren Beaudo of oil giant BP.
But companies have good reason not to appear eager to dive into the refuge, says Michael Rodgers of PFC Energy, an energy consulting firm.
"I don't think companies can benefit from getting in the middle of this right now," he says. "Whenever it's possible for them to get their hands on significant reserves, they're very interested."
The nation has been fighting about the refuge for more than 20 years. Passions and rhetoric have often been intense. In 2001, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said a pro-drilling vote would "crack the backs of radical environmentalists."
Of the 52 senators who voted in 2003 to protect the refuge from development, four are being replaced by people who favor drilling. Only one senator who favored drilling is being replaced.
By one federal estimate, the refuge holds more than 4 billion barrels of oil ready for the taking. The USA consumes roughly 20 million barrels of oil a day.
Environmentalists and energy companies alike think allowing drilling in the Arctic refuge could make it easier to open other protected areas to oil exploration.