U.S. Senate Budget Reignites Arctic Drilling Debate
By J.R. Pegg
WASHINGTON, DC, March 17, 2006 (ENS) - The Senate narrowly approved a $2.8 trillion budget blueprint Thursday that calls for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
The 51-49 vote sets the stage for another showdown with drilling opponents in the House, who blocked the ANWR provision from the final budget resolution in 2005 and have vowed to do the same this year.
The Senate resolution is only the first step in the budget process and merely lays out a non-binding roadmap for spending. It must be reconciled with the House budget blueprint, which has yet to be crafted.
A group of 24 House Republican moderates have called on the House Budget Committee to keep ANWR out of the budget resolution.
The language in the Senate measure assumes the federal government and the state of Alaska will split $6 billion in leasing revenues from ANWR.
Unlike in years past, the ANWR provision generated little debate on the Senate floor, with Democrats convinced an amendment striking the provision would fail.
Last year an amendment removing the ANWR provision failed 49-51.
A rare moment of discussion of the refuge came during limited debate on an amendment offered by Senator Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican who chairs the Senate Energy Committee.
Domenici's amendment, which passed by a partisan vote of 51-49, calls for some $450 million of royalties from ANWR leasing to fund provisions in last year's Energy Policy Act.
"American cannot solve its energy challenges without funding the energy bill," Domenici said.
Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said the concept "makes no sense whatsoever."
"This is a debate we have been through over and over and over again," Durbin told colleagues. "There is no way in the next fiscal year, even if we approve drilling in ANWR there will be proceeds that can be contributed to the Energy Policy Act funding. This is no way to fund energy policy and ANWR is not the answer to our energy prayers."
Environmentalists criticized the Senate for trying to open the refuge through the budgetary process.
The move is "a sign of desperation on the part of the oil lobby and its Congressional backers," said Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation. "Lacking the votes to pass the Arctic drilling scheme after full, fair and open debate, they've resorted once again to manipulating the legislative process."
Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu was the sole Democrat who supported the Senate budget resolution - she pledged her support after securing some $10 billion for Gulf Coast restoration. Funding for the provision would come largely from oil and gas royalties, including money from ANWR.
"These kinds of votes are never easy," Landrieu said. "But sometimes they are necessary."
Republicans voting against the measure were Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Susan Collins of Maine, Mike DeWine of Ohio and John Ensign of Nevada.
Vermont Independent James Jeffords also voted against the budget resolution.
The senators who voted to include oil and gas leasing revenue in the Senate Budget Resolution were blasted by conservationists across the board.
"This fight is a long way from over," said Wilderness Society President William Meadows. "Even though it narrowly passed in the Senate, this misguided, controversial maneuver faces the same steadfast, bipartisan opposition in the House of Representatives that decisively rejected it last year. Last year, a few drilling-obsessed politicians tried every dirty trick and every back door maneuver, but they were stopped by the American people and bipartisan leadership in Congress in the end."
The Senate's approval of a one-issue budget resolution that opens the door to oil drilling in the Arctic National Wlldlife Refuge is a loss for clean government and for conservation, said Republicans for Environmental Protection (REP), a national grassroots organization.
"Unfortunately, the Senate has approved a cynical, backdoor maneuver that is a new low in ethical lapses and kowtowing to special interests," said REP Government Affairs Director David Jenkins. "The Senate's action will reinforce voter impressions that our elected representatives are in thrall to special interests. This shortsighted action puts our Republican majority in Congress further at risk."
Clean government is exactly what the American people want, Meadows said. "Americans want a clean Congress this year, not politicians who will bend the rules of the Senate on behalf of Big Oil and the drilling lobby. This backdoor drilling scheme has nothing to do with the budget or generating revenue - it's all about the oil lobby's power and influence inside Congress and the White House."
Conservationists generally believe that the Senate Budget Resolution is a procedural maneuver to circumvent debate on Arctic oil development crafted to please the drilling lobby.
"Approval of the resolution means that lawmakers will continue to waste their time on the Arctic Refuge drilling fixation, a goody for special interests disguised as an energy solution," Meadows said.
A spill earlier this month from a BP feeder line to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline dramatized for conservationists the dangers of further oil development in the Arctic. "The recent Prudhoe Bay oil spill, the largest in the history of Alaska North Slope oil production, puts the lie to misleading claims that oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge would be environmentally gentle," REP Policy Director Jim DiPeso said.
"Drilling the Arctic Refuge would perpetuate America's dangerous oil dependence and sap the will we need to pursue balanced, lasting solutions that are available for ensuring our country of clean, reliable, and affordable energy choices," he said.
Senate Democrats failed with amendments to increase spending and tax credits for renewable energy and on a slew of environmental projects, including state grants for clean water, land and water conservation funds, and additional funding for the National Park Service.
Spending added to the bill included $3.3 billion for low-income heating assistance and $7 billion for health, education and labor programs.
The vote on the resolution came in the wake of a 52-48 vote to raise the federal debt limit by $781 billion in order to keep the federal government solvent. The statutory debt ceiling is now some $9 trillion - a third of which has been run up under the Bush administration.
"Borrow and spend, borrow and spend," said Senator Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee. "That is what this budget represents. It sends the federal debt up, up and away."
Total spending in the budget resolution accounts for a projected federal budget deficit of some $270 billion for fiscal year 2007 - this year's deficit is expected to be $400 billion.
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