Senate Approves Arctic Refuge Oil Drilling

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, March 17, 2005 (ENS) The U.S. Senate voted Wednesday to allow oil drilling within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), handing a major defeat to Democrats and environmentalists who have battled long and hard against the plan.

The 51-49 vote blocked an effort by Democrats to remove drilling language from budget legislation and removes a key hurdle to opening the refuge to development

Bush administration officials hailed the support for one of the President's energy priorities, but Democrats lashed out at Republicans for advancing the effort by including drilling revenues in the budget resolution.

"This is a backdoor scheme for drilling," said Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat. "The public doesn't want it, major oil companies don't appear to want it and it does not belong in a budget resolution."

"Even if you think we should drill in the Arctic Refuge this is not the time or place for the debate," Feingold told colleagues. "It invites greater mischief down the line."

The move blocked Democrats from filibustering the provision as they have done in recent years and meant proponents only needed a simple majority to advance the plan, rather than the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster.

The language in the resolution assumes the government will get $2.5 billion from opening ANWR to oil drilling - critics say that is highly speculative and inflates historic leasing prices some 80 times. anwr

ANWR drilling proponents have their eyes on the refuge's 1.5-million acre coastal plain. (Photo courtesy USGS)
"This is really a change to legislative policy not budget policy," said Senator Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat.

"The votes don't exist to do this through the proper channels of the Senate," added Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat. "This is an abuse of power and is also the abuse of common sense."

New Mexico Republican Pete Domenici defended the method and said opponents were "trying to deny Americans a vital resource" by insisting it be approved by a supermajority.

"We have decided it is too important for that," Domenici said.

The vote is critical to the Bush administration's effort to allow drilling in the refuge, which was created in 1960 by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower.

Although there is not similar language in the House budget resolution, the House has passed provisions opening ANWR on three separate occasions - the Senate has failed previously to approve drilling in the refuge.

The House is "waiting with open arms," Domenici said.

Proponents say oil development in the refuge ANWR can be done with little impact to the environment and will ease U.S. dependence on foreign oil. snow

The coastal plain of ANWR looks like this for much of the year. (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS))
"There will not be any damage to the environment and that is a fact," said Senator Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican.

Drilling supporters note the provision only opens 2,000 acres of the refuge's 1.5-million acre coastal plain, which Congress has the authority to approve for oil and gas development.

"The area we are talking about exploring is not in a protected wilderness area," said Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican. "It has been reserved because of its potential for oil and gas preserves."

But opponents say the coastal plain is the biological heart of the refuge and oil drilling would have devastating impacts to its wildlife and do little to reduce foreign oil imports.

"It is very foolish to say oil development and a wildlife refuge can coexist," said Senator Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat and sponsor of the amendment.

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

Critics add that although the provision limits development to 2,000 acres, that figure only includes surface acreage covered by production and support facilities and does not include pipelines, gravel roads and ice roads.

"Every oil field on the North Slope has a permanent gravel road," said Senator Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat. "This is going to be destructive and it will change the environment permanently." oil

Proponents of oil drilling contend caribou can happily coexist with drilling operations. (Photo courtesy Arctic Power)
Government estimates of how much oil lie within the coastal plain range from 5.7 billion to 16 billion barrels.

The official estimate from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which was last revised in 1998, found that the mean value of the total quantity of technically recoverable oil in the area is 7.7 billion barrels.

But the term "technically recoverable" is not the same as "economically recoverable," which many believe is a more accurate figure.

Using 1996 dollars, the mean of this estimate translates into 5.2 billion barrels of oil that is economically recoverable at $24 per barrel.

Although oil prices are now above $50 per barrel, USGS estimates do not show a significant increase in economically recoverable oil even at this price.

It will take at least 10 years for oil from ANWR to make any impact on oil supplies, Democrats said, and conservation efforts and tighter fuel standards could make a greater impact much more quickly than new production.

The United States consumes some 20 million barrels of oil a year - almost 60 percent is imported.

If peak production is obtained, proponents say ANWR could provide one million barrels a day.

Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden said the provision approved Wednesday would do nothing to ensure ANWR oil aids the nation's domestic supply.

This resolution is "a license to export Alaska oil outside the United States," Wyden said. "With the weak dollar it would be the virtual certainty that the highest price for Arctic oil would be outside our country." polarbear

Polar bears have so far survived oil and gas development on Alaska's North Slope - 95 percent of which is currently open to oil and gas exploration. (Photo courtesy FWS)
Republicans say the nation's thirst for oil and the security implications of that demand are more than enough reason to open the refuge.

"We are absolutely vulnerable to the fact that we import oil from a dangerous and unstable world," Domenici said. "We will not be a world power if someone denies us oil. There is no doubt in my mind that America must do something and this is a chance to something very significant."

Seven Republicans joined the Senate's lone Independent and 41 Democrats in the bid to strip the language from the bill.

Hawaii Democrats Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye joined Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu as the three Democrats who voted with 47 Republicans in favor of opening ANWR.

Environmentalists called the vote a serious setback but refused to concede defeat on the issue.

"They may have cleared the first hurdle by the skin of their teeth, but this thing isn't over, not by a long shot," said Defenders of Wildlife President Rodger Schlickeisen.

Including ANWR drilling in the final budget reconciliation could make the legislation harder to pass, Schlickeisen said, and Congress has failed to complete the budget process in each of the last two years.

"Shoehorning a controversial measure like Arctic Refuge drilling into the budget where it doesn't belong was a parliamentary stunt to begin with, and it's one that could very well come back to haunt them," Schlickeisen said.