Senate Tries New Strategy to Win Alaska Drilling
WASHINGTON The Bush administration's aim to open an Alaskan wildlife refuge to oil drilling was included in a draft Senate budget resolution on Wednesday, improving its chances of passage after repeated filibusters, a senior Republican senator said.
The White House and Republican leaders want to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a vast pristine area on Alaska's north coast, to boost domestic supplies of oil.
Moderate Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have blocked ANWR legislation for years, citing concerns about the impact of drilling on wildlife such as caribou, polar bears and migratory birds.
But this year, by attaching legislative language to a broad federal budget measure, Senate Republican leaders believe they can push through ANWR drilling. Under Senate rules, budget bills cannot be filibustered or talked to death.
Pete Domenici of New Mexico, the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, said the ANWR drilling measure was included in the Senate Budget Committee's draft budget bill released on Wednesday.
"All we're going to do in this budget resolution is do it the old fashioned way," Domenici said. "If you want to win, you get 51 votes."
Ending a Senate filibuster on other bills requires 60 votes.
However, Sen. Russell Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, said he would offer an amendment to strip the language from the budget bill. Something as controversial as ANWR drilling should not be included in a broad bill to fund the entire federal government in fiscal 2006, he and other critics said.
"It's a back door way to try and get drilling in the Arctic wilderness," Feingold said.
In a speech in Ohio, President George W. Bush urged Congress to open 2,000 acres of the refuge to oil exploration.
"Developing a small section of ANWR would not only create thousands of new jobs, but it would eventually reduce our dependence on foreign oil by up to a million barrels of oil a day," Bush said. "Congress needs to look at the science and look at the facts and send me a bill that includes exploration in ANWR for the sake of our country."
The U.S. government has estimated that 10 billion to 16 billion barrels of crude oil could be pumped from the refuge.
"That's the same amount of new oil we could get from 41 states combined," Bush said.
The Senate Budget Committee's draft budget bill estimated some $2.5 billion would be collected in fees from energy companies that would pay the government to lease ANWR tracts to hunt for oil.
That is based on the assumption that the federal government can lease at least 400,000 acres in the refuge, and collect fees of $4,000 to $6,000 an acre from energy firms. Some Democrats have questioned those assumptions, noting that a series of northern Alaskan lease sales brought in an average of less than $40 per acre in the past four years.
While the Senate moved forward with the administration's oil drilling plan, the House Budget Committee's draft bill for fiscal 2006 did not include a provision for ANWR drilling.
"We're sort of agnostic on that particular policy," said a House Budget Committee aide.
However, other lawmakers on the House panel could try to amend the budget bill to add the drilling language. The full House has overwhelmingly approved opening the wildlife refuge to oil companies in the past two years.
(Additional reporting by Anna Willard)