Dems kill GOP plans to drill Alaska for oil

Senate Democrats succeeded on Wednesday in killing a Republican plan to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that was part of a massive $453 billion wartime military spending bill that later passed.

The vast ANWR refuge is the size of South Carolina and may hold 10 billion barrels of oil. It has been the focus of bitter wrangling in the U.S. Congress for more than two decades and drilling supporters said they would not give up the fight.

Most Senate Democrats and some moderate Republicans said the frigid wilderness and its assortment of wildlife, ranging from polar bears to peregrine falcons, should be protected. Other Republicans said ANWR must be unlocked for drilling to stop a steady slide in U.S. crude oil production.

Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska attached the measure to the $453 billion defense spending bill that pays for U.S. troops and Pentagon weapons programs in the coming year. Furious Democrats threatened to talk the bill to death over ANWR.

Although lawmakers were anxious to wrap up work for the year, Republicans failed to get the 60 votes needed to cut off debate on the bill. The vote was 56-44.

Republicans hold 55 seats in the Senate while Democrats have 44 seats. There is one independent. Republican leaders eventually agreed to drop the ANWR drilling provision to win passage of the defense bill. It passed 93-0.

“It took a lot of guts for people to stand up for ANWR,” said Democrat Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. Drilling opponents were “fighting one of the most powerful senators” and open to criticism from political opponents accusing them of blocking funds for U.S. troops in Iraq, he said.

“Today the Senate gave the oil industry and (Sen.) Stevens the lump of coal they deserved,” said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. It and other green groups say the same amount of oil recoverable from ANWR could be conserved if Congress imposed stricter fuel standards on new vehicles.


The White House, which sees ANWR drilling as crucial to the U.S. oil supply, said it was not giving up.

“We’ll continue to push to get that provision passed,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Republican Pete Domenici of New Mexico said he would try again to unlock ANWR by putting the drilling language in filibuster-proof budget legislation in the spring. “Gasoline prices will begin climbing again next year,” he said.

Drilling opponents said they won’t give up either.

“We will remain vigilant next year to make sure that the country focuses its energy on real solutions to our overdependence on foreign oil and not Christmas packages for oil companies,” said Democrat Maria Cantwell of Washington.

The key opponent to deleting the ANWR provision was Stevens, and the scrappy 82-year-old senator threatened at one point to keep the Senate in session through New Year’s Day.

Stevens said dropping ANWR from the defense bill also removed $2 billion that would have been raised from oil leasing fees and put into a federal program to help poor people pay their expensive utility bills.

U.S. business groups criticized the vote, saying Democrats ignored the need for stable oil prices. “The failure to act means more American jobs will move overseas,” said John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers.

While ANWR covers nearly 20 million acres, the Republican plan would limit oil exploration to the refuge’s 1.5 million acre (607,000-ha) coastal plain, with roads and related drilling infrastructure covering no more than 2,000 acres (800 ha).

Most of ANWR is accessible only by airplane or boat. The Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages ANWR, calls it “one of the finest examples of wilderness left on the planet.”

Oil companies say advanced drilling technology would allow them to find and pump oil without hurting the environment.

Domenici said oil platforms already operate on Alaska’s North Slope in an environmentally sensitive way. “They look like little outhouses,” he said. “You won’t be able to even see or locate what has transpired (with drilling equipment).”

The defense bill also includes funding to fight bird flu. The House approved the defense bill on Monday with the ANWR drilling plan. The chamber will now have to vote on the measure again with the changes made by the Senate.