GOP takes another stab at drilling in Alaska refuge
Posted on Monday, February 07 @ 10:28:08 EST
Changes in Senate make Republicans more confident
By Zachary Coile, San Francisco Chronicle
Washington -- For more than a decade, Republicans in Congress have been frustrated as first President Bill Clinton and then Senate Democrats blocked their efforts to allow oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
But after the November election, which added four new Republican senators -- and ousted several anti-drilling Democrats -- proponents are now bullish they will achieve their goal of opening what they say is America's largest untapped oil reserve.
"This is probably our best shot at actually getting it through and to the president's desk," said House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, the Tracy Republican who has become the House's most vocal advocate for drilling in the refuge.
"I'm optimistic that we finally have a chance to get it done."
Pombo's committee is scheduled to meet Wednesday and is expected to approve a new energy bill that will include provisions to open the Alaskan refuge to drilling. The bill is nearly identical to one passed by the House last year, although it would add a requirement for speedier decisions by federal agencies on lease applications and permits to drill for oil and gas on public lands.
President Bush favors drilling in the refuge -- although some proponents believe he has not used the full weight of his bully pulpit to back the plan. In his State of the Union speech, he called on Congress to approve the energy bill, but made no mention of oil development in the refuge.
"Four years of debate is enough," Bush said. "I urge Congress to pass legislation that makes America more secure and less dependent on foreign energy."
Opponents of drilling are also preparing for the looming fight in Congress over the refuge, and they are fully aware the new make-up of the Senate will make it much more difficult to block.
"We've got to gear up for another battle," said Democratic California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who led the Senate floor fight in the last Congress against drilling.
Boxer joined other Democratic lawmakers and environmental leaders last week at a noisy outdoor rally against drilling in the refuge. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., promised to try to filibuster any proposal to open up the refuge, saying Democrats could not allow a wildlife sanctuary to be used for drilling.
"It's time to draw a line in the tundra," Lieberman said.
That line may be tougher to draw now that Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has said he may try to pass drilling in the refuge through budget reconciliation legislation, which can't be filibustered and requires only a simple majority of 51 votes to pass.
While using the budget process could avoid a filibuster, it could also open Senate Republicans to the charge that they are sneaking the measure through Congress.
Carol Browner, the former Environmental Protection Agency administrator under Clinton and chair of the board of the National Audubon Society, said that if proponents want to allow drilling in the wildlife refuge they "should be willing to have a public debate about it, rather than hide it in a budget process that keeps it away from public scrutiny."
Senate Republicans may not need to use the budget process. During negotiations two years ago over the energy bill, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, a chief advocate for drilling in the refuge, said he had the support of 57 or 58 senators -- just short of the 60 needed to override a filibuster. The four new GOP senators could provide the margin of victory.
But a spokeswoman for Domenici said he only has commitments of support from 51 or 52 senators -- not enough to pass it as part of the energy bill.
"The budget resolution is the only way we can pass ANWR with just 50-plus votes," said Marnie Funk, the spokeswoman for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Domenici plans to lead a group of senators on a trip to Alaska to tour the refuge in early March and will seek to pass the provision through a budget resolution later that month.
The refuge was established by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960, and expanded by President Jimmy Carter to 19 million acres. Most of the refuge was designated as wilderness, but the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain was set aside as a study area at the urging of oil and gas interests.
This status has left the coastal plain in a legal gray area -- drilling is not allowed, but the area does not have permanent wilderness protection.
Democrats have introduced legislation to designate the coastal plain as wilderness -- although a similar measure failed in Congress last year. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has called the coastal plain the biological heart of the refuge, where the 125,000-strong Porcupine Caribou herd goes each summer to give birth to calves and feed. The refuge is also home to musk oxen, Dall sheep, gray wolves, brown, black and polar bears and millions of migratory birds.
While supporters of drilling say they would limit the affected area to 2, 000 acres, environmentalists fear the potential for oil spills and the impact of roads, drill pads, pipelines and heavy equipment on wildlife in the area.
Proponents argue that the potential impacts on wildlife are overstated, noting that the caribou herds on the Prudhoe Bay oil fields 80 miles west of the refuge have grown from about 3,000 when oil drilling began in the 1970s to nearly 32,000 now.
"There will be an environmental impact from doing this," Pombo said. "The goal is to have the smallest negative impact to the environment that we can. When you're talking about in excess of 10 billion barrels of oil, that probably has the least impact of what some of the other alternatives would be."
Pombo added, "In the long term, we are looking at solar power, wind power, fuel cells and different alternatives that I suspect will replace, to a large degree, fossil fuels. But in the short term, we have to look at how we provide for the current demand when two-thirds of our oil is coming from offshore."
Opponents argue that drilling in the refuge would do little to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil, and they urge other solutions, such as increasing federal fuel efficiency standards.
The U.S. Energy Information Agency found drilling in the refuge would boost domestic energy supplies by almost 20 percent by 2025. But Boxer noted that the agency also found that the new supplies would only cut America's dependence on foreign oil from 62 percent to 60 percent.
"Is that 2 percent worth forever losing one of the most beautiful wild places in America and in the world?" Boxer asked.
E-mail Zachary Coile at firstname.lastname@example.org
Reprinted from The San Francisco Chronicle: