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Bid to protect Alaska refuge narrowly fails

Bid to protect Alaska refuge narrowly fails
Houston Chronicle - 9 hours ago
By DAVID IVANOVICH. WASHINGTON - The Senate on Thursday narrowly approved a bill that would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. In the latest victory for an energy industry that ...

Nov. 3, 2005, 9:08PM

Bid to protect Alaska refuge narrowly fails

Senate approves budget bill that allows drilling in wildlife habitat

By DAVID IVANOVICH
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - The Senate on Thursday narrowly approved a bill that would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.

In the latest victory for an energy industry that has long sought access to the refuge, the Senate voted 52-47 in favor of a budget bill that would, among many other things, end the 25-year-old ban on drilling in a stretch of the northern Alaska wilderness.

"It's the beginning of the end of the opposition," Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said Thursday. "I think we're going to get it — finally.

"This giant reserve is going to be developed," Domenici said.

But the Senate's sprawling budget package is a very different legislative creation than the bill being considered in the House. And whether House and Senate negotiators will be able to reach a compromise that could pass both chambers remains an open question.

The centerpiece of President Bush's energy strategy, opening the wildlife refuge would grant oil and gas producers access to what is believed to be the nation's largest, untapped onshore oil deposit.

The refuge is estimated to hold more than 10 billion barrels of recoverable oil. The Energy Information Administration calculates that if the refuge is opened up for exploration, Alaska's northern coastal plain could be producing anywhere from 600,000 to 1.6 million barrels a day by 2025.

But opponents fear drilling will spoil a remarkable wildlife area that's been dubbed "America's Serengeti."

The House's budget legislation likewise calls for drilling in the wildlife refuge.

That bill also would allow states along the east and west coasts to permit oil and gas drilling off their shores. Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia have all expressed at least some interest in opening the waters off their coasts to oil and gas exploration.

Domenici said that while he personally supports that provision, he's not sure it would get enough votes in the Senate to pass.

The House bill also features far steeper budget cuts than those contemplated in the Senate package.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California says no Democrat in the House will vote for the bill. And any compromise package emerging from the conference committee that closely tracks the House legislation, will face some stiff opposition in the Senate.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1960 and expanded in 1980 to its current acreage, roughly the size of South Carolina. At the time it was expanded, lawmakers carved out a 1.5 million-acre slice of the refuge known as Section 1002 for future possible oil and gas exploration.

The 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.

Backers of the bill attached it to the budget bill because under Senate rules a budget measure cannot be filibustered.

Previous Republican efforts to open the refuge to exploration have failed. A GOP-controlled Congress approved such a bill in 1995, but it was vetoed by President Clinton.

On Thursday, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., led an effort to pull the drilling provision from the bill. Cantwell pointed to more than 500 oil spills in northern Alaska's producing region in recent years and said drilling in the refuge could damage a national treasure.

Karen Wayland, legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said "the Senate caved in to oil and gas companies that are rolling in record profits."

But Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, argued that drilling in the refuge can be done in an environmentally responsible fashion.

Allowing companies to explore in the refuge "would add so much to our domestic supply. It's something I think we should have done a long time ago."

The Senate easily approved an amendment that would bar producers from selling any crude produced in the refuge overseas. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who championed the provision, argued that if lawmakers don't ban exports "this oil is going to Asia."

The bill also would provide $1.4 billion to Texas and other states ravaged by this year's hurricanes for coastal restoration projects. That would be on top of the $1 billion promised by the massive energy bill Bush signed into law in August. It would grant money to Texas and other oil and gas producing states to repair their coastlines.

david.ivanovich@chron.com

 

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