- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2006


The House yesterday voted to open an Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling, citing the public outcry over $3-a-gallon gasoline and the nation’s heavy reliance on foreign oil, but knowing the prospects for Senate approval were slim.

Drilling proponents argued 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.

Those opposed 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 on the coastal strip of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), an area of 1.5 million acres that is thought likely to hold as much as 16 billion barrels of recoverable oil.

The action may be little more than symbolic. Arctic refuge development, while approved by the House five times, has been blocked repeatedly 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,” said Rep. Richard W. Pombo, California Republican, 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.

Access to ANWR’s oil has been a key part of President Bush’s energy agenda, although over the past five years he has been unable to convince Congress of its merits. Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman yesterday urged the Senate to pass a drilling measure “so we can strengthen our nation’s energy security.”

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 allows it.

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 consider it one of 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, California Democrat.

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 that the additional domestic oil would help move the country toward more energy independence.

Congress approved drilling in the refuge in 1995, but President Clinton vetoed the bill.

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