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Arctic oil drilling returns to forefront

Associated Press
Published August 8, 2005

WASHINGTON - Conspicuous by its absence in the sweeping energy bill that President Bush has championed and will sign today is his top energy priority: opening an Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling.

But the fight over the future of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will flare anew in Congress next month, with drilling advocates saying they have their best chance in more than two decades of making it happen.

Tapping what is believed to be at least 10-billion barrels of oil within the refuge's 1.5-million-acre coastal plain has been the centerpiece of Bush's energy agenda dating back to his first presidential campaign in 2000. Bush has repeatedly said the oil is important to national and economic security.

But the idea that drilling proponents might win has produced outrage among environmentalists, who see the region as a pristine refuge where caribou, polar bears, migratory birds and other wildlife thrive and should be protected.

A coalition of most Democrats and a handful of moderate Republicans repeatedly has thwarted attempts to open the refuge to energy development through the power of the Senate filibuster.

But drilling advocates have a backup plan that is expected to unfold in mid September.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said he will include a provision authorizing ANWR drilling as part of a budget procedure that is immune to filibuster. A similar maneuver is being planned in the House, although the final strategy is still being worked out.

Unlike normal legislation, the budget process is not subject to filibuster, so only 51 votes will be needed in the Senate for it to clear Congress and be signed into law by the president. Just such a tactic was used a decade ago when Congress approved ANWR drilling as part of the budget process, only to see the measure vetoed by President Bill Clinton, a drilling opponent.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said her state's delegation is determined to push for opening the refuge, calling it "the final component" of a nation energy plan that she hopes will be put in place later this year.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated proceeds from oil leases at $5-billion over five years, shared equally by the federal government and Alaska.

This expected revenue is at the heart of the strategy that drilling supporters plan to pursue to end more than 20 years of debate over access to ANWR's oil. The budget will assume $2.5-billion in federal revenue from ANWR lease sales, beginning in 2007. That, in turn, will allow lawmakers to draft an accompanying document authorizing such drilling - a so-called "reconciliation" document which is not subject to filibuster and when signed by the president will have the force of law.

It's "backdoor budget chicanery," complained Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., an ANWR drilling opponent. "By shoehorning the Arctic refuge into the budget, they are making an end-run around the legislative process, knowing it cannot pass the Senate any other way."

But drilling advocates accuse opponents of also having relied on a parliamentary maneuver, the filibuster, to keep the issue from being decided on a straight up-or-down vote.

The outcome could depend on a handful of votes, says Melinda Pierce of the Sierra Club. But handicapping them will be anything but simple.

[Last modified August 8, 2005, 02:45:22]

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