Why or why not?
March 16, 2005, 10:17AM
Drilling in refuge expected
Senate to vote today on ending moratorium in section of wildlife area
By DAVID IVANOVICH
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - The Senate is poised to vote today to sweep aside a 25-year-old moratorium and allow oil companies to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
In what could prove the pivotal vote in a debate that has spanned a generation, the Republican-led Senate is expected to narrowly defeat an effort to yank language that would authorize drilling in a portion of this wildlife refuge in northeast Alaska.
"We believe we have the votes," said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who has been trying for decades to open the refuge to oil and gas exploration.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who quoted from Genesis and 1 Corinthians to argue against drilling in the refuge, conceded he was worried about the vote.
The centerpiece of President Bush's energy strategy, the measure would grant energy companies access to the largest untapped oil deposit left onshore in the United States, an estimated 10.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil.
The vote comes as oil prices are near record highs and the nation's average price of gasoline has topped $2 a gallon.
But opponents argue drilling will spoil what they call "America's Serengeti."
Proponents of drilling in the wildlife refuge attached the provision to a budget resolution, a tactic designed to avoid an otherwise certain filibuster, which would allow opponents to block consideration of the measure with only 40 votes. Under Senate rules, drilling opponents would need 51 votes to strike the language from the budget bill, but they are expected to fall short.
The House is scheduled to pass its own budget resolution later this week. That measure isn't expected to include comparable language on drilling in the refuge, so the differences would have to be worked out in a conference committee.
The House has repeatedly passed bills authorizing opening up the refuge to exploration, but budget resolutions can get hung up over any number of arcane issues. Indeed, last year lawmakers could never come to terms.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1960. In 1980, it was expanded to its current size, roughly comparable to South Carolina.
But with the nation experiencing a painful oil price shock at that time, lawmakers earmarked a 1.5-million-acre slice along Alaska's coastal plain for possible oil and natural gas exploration.
To date, the government has never authorized drilling in this area, known in federal parlance as Section 1002.
A GOP-controlled Congress approved just such a proposal in 1995, but then-President Clinton vetoed the measure.
The current proposal would allow companies to drill in Section 1002, but the surface area covered by production or support facilities would be limited to 2,000 acres.
Oil could begin flowing within seven to 10 years, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said Tuesday. The government could hold a lease sale in 2007.
The Energy Information Agency estimated last year that if the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge were opened up for exploration, Alaska's northern coastal plan could be producing anywhere from 600,000 to 1.6 million barrels a day by 2025.
That would include production from the Section 1002 area, as well as tribal lands and offshore areas controlled by Alaska, which won't be developed unless the federal lands are opened up.
On Capitol Hill, virtually any energy policy debate can spark a brawl. But few issues generate the kind of passions roused when lawmakers debate opening this pristine corner of northeast Alaska. On Tuesday, the wildlife refuge debate was cast as a choice between national security and the nation's sacred values.
Proponents like Stevens argued that drilling in Alaska will help reduce the nation's dependence on unreliable, even rogue states abroad to meet our energy needs. He pointed to today's meeting of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries in Isfahan, Iran.
"Think about that: OPEC is meeting in Iran to decide the future of oil prices for the world," Stevens said.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., last year's Democratic presidential nominee, argued that once oil companies move into the area, "It's no longer what it is today ... a wilderness."
Democrats also accused Republicans of bending the Senate rules to attach the measure to a budget resolution.
Representatives from Alaska's native peoples joined the fray.
Desiree Kaveolook, a student from the Inupiat Eskimo village of Kaktovik, the only permanent human settlement within the refuge, argued that the economic benefits of drilling in the refuge will help local schools and provide scholarships for students from the area.
Luci Beach is a member of the Gwich'in people who migrate in an out of the refuge following a large caribou herd — the tribe's name means People of the Caribou.
Beach worries drilling activity will disturb an area where the caribou come to calve, endangering a key food supply for her people.