Senate Puts Arctic Drilling on Ice

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, December 22, 2005 (ENS) – The U.S. Senate Wednesday blocked a rider to a $453 billion military spending bill that would permit oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

refuge

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge extends along Alaska's coastal plain. (Photo by Subhankar Banerjee courtesy University of Washington)
The vote is a bitter defeat for drilling proponents who hoped to open the refuge by adding the provision to a defense appropriations bill that lawmakers are loathe to delay.

"This was a vote of conscience," said Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat. "This was not a vote to stall a bill that is important to the security of our country."

The 56-44 vote left supporters four votes shy of the 60 needed to end debate on the bill.

The legislation contains funding for the Pentagon, as well as $50 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, $2 billion in low-income heating assistance, $3.8 billion in funding to combat bird flu, and $29 billion in relief for hurricane victims.

Both sides said the debate over ANWR was needlessly holding up passage of the military spending bill.

"Democrats should not filibuster our defense appropriations bill," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican. "We are a nation at war."

That argument did not sway drilling opponents, who said Republicans were to blame for any delay.

Domenici

Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico heads the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
"It is those who have the audacity and disrespect to our rules to attach this to funding for our troops who are endangering it," said Senator Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat.

The vote is the latest in the long-running debate over the future of the Arctic refuge’s coastal plain, which may contain some 10 billion barrels of oil.

Proponents contend the drilling in the refuge is vital to national security and can be done in a manner that will not harm the environment.

"We need oil," said Senator Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican. "We own it. [The effects] will not even be seen. You won’t be able to even see or locate what has transpired."

Opponents say oil drilling would have devastating impacts to wildlife and do little to reduce foreign oil imports.

More than 100 species of wildlife and birds rely on the area, including caribou, polar bears, wolves, grizzly bears, musk oxen, and arctic foxes.

California Democrat Dianne Feinstein said tightening fuel economy standards on sport utility vehicles would save as much oil as ANWR could produce.

Feinstein

Senator Diane Feinstein of California (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
"Destroying this wilderness does very little to reduce energy costs, nor does it do much to oil dependency," she said. "We cannot drill our way to energy independence."

Democrats repeatedly criticized the manner in which Republicans added the provision to the appropriations bill, which was approved by the House early Monday morning.

Neither the House nor the Senate version of the bill included the Arctic drilling provision.

Passage of the conference report by the Senate would require lawmakers to ignore a rule that prohibits language in the conference report that is not contained in either the original House or Senate version of the bill.

The Senate’s longest serving member, West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, implored his colleagues to abide by the Senate rule.

"I abhor this idea," said Byrd. "Shame. If such a scheme were carried into effect it could seriously impair the Senate’s rules."

Byrd

Senator Robert Byrd of West Virgina has served in the Senate since 1958. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
The 88-year old West Virginian cautioned that if the Senate voted to override the rule on this occasion, it would open the door to abuse by the majority who could add non-germane items to legislation without consequence.

Byrd directly addressed Alaska Republican Senator Ted Stevens, the key architect of the drilling provision and longest serving Republican in the Senate.

"I love this man from Alaska, but I love the Senate more," Byrd said. "I understand the passions surrounding the issues … He is standing up for his state but I am standing for the Senate - for the Senate rules under the constitution of the United States. We violate these rules at a terrible price."

Stevens said the provision was put into the defense bill at the bequest of House Democrats and does not run awry of Senate rules.

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Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska has served in the Senate since 1969. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
"Nothing in this bill would allow the majority to go amuck," said the 83-year old Alaskan. "I don’t deserve some of the comments made by some senators … there is nothing I have done here that violates the rules."

Senator Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, said provisions have often been added to legislation without concern about rule violations.

"This is not unprecedented," Lott said. "This is where we are every year. There is nothing so unusual or outlandish about all this."

The fate of the bill – and the drilling provision – remained unclear at press time.

Stevens had told colleagues he’d be willing to strip the ANWR provision in order to pass the bill quickly, but at times seemed defiant about a battle he’s been fighting for more than two decades.

"I’ve already canceled my trip home for Christmas," he said.

This is the closest proponents have come to opening the refuge since 1995, when Congress approved drilling only to be blocked by President Bill Clinton.

Drilling in the refuge is a major priority of the Bush administration and the Senate approved a provision in a different budget bill earlier this year, only to see it removed at conference.

Frist switched his vote on the cloture moment once defeat was acknowledged – the move allows the matter to be reconsidered by the Senate.

Two other Republicans, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Mike DeWine of Ohio, voted with 40 Democrats and the Senate’s lone Independent against cloture.

Four Democrats – Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Hawaii’s Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye – voted with 52 Republicans to end debate.