WASHINGTON — Amid the backdrop of soaring oil and gasoline prices, a sharply divided U.S. Senate on Wednesday voted to open the ecologically rich Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling, delivering a major energy policy win for President George 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, preventing opponents from using a filibuster — a tactic that has blocked repeated past attempts to open the Alaska refuge to oil companies.
The action, assuming Congress agrees on a budget, clears the way for approving drilling in the refuge later this year, drilling supporters said. The House has not included a similar provision in its budget, so the issue is still subject to negotiations later this year to resolve the difference.
The oil industry has sought for more than two decades to get access to what is believed to be billions of barrels of oil beneath the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the northern eastern corner of Alaska.
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, 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.
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.
Bush has called tapping the reserve's oil a critical part of the nation's energy security and a way to reduce America's reliance on imported oil, which account for more than half of the 20 million barrels of crude use daily.
It's "a way to get some additional reserves here at home on the books," Bush said Wednesday.
The Alaska refuge could supply as much as 1 million barrels day at peak production, drilling supporters said. But they acknowledge that even if ANWR's oil is tapped, it would have no impact on soaring oil prices and tight supplies. The first lease sales would not be issued until 2007, followed by development seven to 10 years later, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said.
"We won't see this oil for 10 years. It will have minimal impact," argued Sen Maria Cantwell, a co-sponsor of the amendment that would have stripped the arctic refuge provision from the budget document. It is "foolish to say oil development and a wildlife refuge can coexist," she said.
Sen John Kerry argued that more oil would be saved if Congress enacted an energy policy focusing on conservation, more efficient cars and trucks and increased reliance on renewable fuels and expanded oil development in the deep-water Gulf where there are significant reserves.
"The fact is drilling in ANWR is going to be destructive," said Kerry.
But drilling proponents argued that modern drilling technology can safeguard the refuge and still tap the likely 10.4 billion barrels of crude in the refuge.
The 19-million-acre refuge was set aside for protection by President Eisenhower in 1960, but Congress in 1980 said its 1.5- million-acre coastal plain could be opened to oil development if Congress specifically authorizes it.
The House has repeatedly passed measures over the years to allow drilling in ANWR only to see the legislation stalled in the Senate. But 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.
Drilling supporters argued that access to the refuge's oil was a matter of national security and that modern drilling technology would protect the region's wildlife.
Environmentalists contended 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. (Wire reports)