Senate Approves Arctic Drilling to Slake U.S. Oil Thirst

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, November 3, 2005 (ENS) - The U.S. Senate today rejected a bid by Democrats and a handful of Republicans to strike language in the budget bill that will permit oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The 51-48 vote against the amendment moves the prospect of oil drilling in the refuge one step closer to reality and is a major defeat for environmentalists who have lobbied long and hard to keep oil companies out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

The future of the ANWR drilling language is now intertwined with the fate of the budget bill – the Senate could vote on the final package as early as today.

The House, which has approved drilling in the refuge three times in recent years, is expected to consider its version of the budget bill next week.

The two bills must then be reconciled, approved by both bodies and ultimately signed by the President – a supporter of drilling in the Arctic refuge.


A portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Photo courtesy Arctic Power)
Democrats lashed out at Republicans for attaching the ANWR drilling plan to the budget bill, which under Senate rules cannot be filibustered and only needs 51 votes – instead of 60 – to pass.

“This isn't the way to make policy relating to energy,” said Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat. “This back-door tactic is an abuse of the reconciliation process. It reflects poorly on this body and invites greater mischief down the line.”

“This is no way to treat the crown jewel of our National Wildlife Refuge System,” Feingold told colleagues.

The language in the budget bill assumes $2.4 billion in federal revenues from leasing in the refuge, which could contain some 10.4 billion barrels of oil.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said the nation’s growing thirst for oil – and need to curb its dependence on foreign sources – are ample reasons for opening the refuge.


Senator Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, is Senate Majority Leader and a supporter of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
“The oil in the ANWR is critical to our economic and national security,” Frist said, who added that drilling in the refuge will create “hundreds of thousands of jobs” and that new technologies would safeguard the fragile Arctic environment from the impacts of oil development.

”Some critics complain that drilling in ANWR will hurt the environment,” Frist said. “This simply isn’t true.”

Drilling supporters note the provision only opens 2,000 acres of the refuge’s 1.5-million acre coastal plain – an area Frist said is “the equivalent to a postage stamp on a tennis court.”

According to Senator John Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican, “setting aside 2,000 acres in this part of the northernmost part of Alaska for the second or third largest oil find in our country's history is a reasonable, thoughtful, balanced approach.”

Critics said the 2,000 acre figure touted by proponents only includes surface acreage covered by production and support facilities and does not include pipelines, gravel roads and ice roads.

“Drilling in the refuge will really create a spider web of industrial activities over the entire 1.5 million acre coastal plain,” said Senator Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat and lead sponsor of the amendment to block drilling,


Senator Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, has opposed drilling in the Arctic refuge for years. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Drilling opponents contend 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.

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

“Wildlife is going to be harmed,” Cantwell said. “The fact that people think these things can work together is amazing.”

Oil development on Alaska’s North Slope has done “lasting damage to the environment,” said Cantwell, citing the findings of a 2003 National Academy of Sciences report.

It will take at least 10 years for oil from ANWR to make any impact on oil supplies, drilling opponents said, and there is doubt as to whether the leases will return the revenues promised in the bill.

They noted that the U.S. Energy Information Agency also estimates that at its peak ANWR oil may reduce oil dependence by three percent in 2025 and affect gasoline prices by only about $.015 per gallon.

“Drilling in the Arctic will not translate into savings at the gas pump,” Cantwell said.


Senator Daniel Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat, has been a U.S. Senator since he was first elected in 1962. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Three Democrats - Senators Mary Landrieu of Louisiania and Hawaii Senators Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka – joined 48 Republicans to defeat the Cantwell amendment.

Seven Republicans – Senators Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Mike DeWine of Ohio, John McCain of Arizona and Gordon Smith of Oregon – voted with 40 Democrats and the Senate’s lone Independent, James Jeffords of Vermont, in favor of the amendment.

Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said the move to open ANWR is part of a flawed energy policy that focuses on supply, rather than demand, said

“If we improve the miles per gallon on the cars and trucks we are driving today by two miles a gallon, it would make up for all of the oil we are talking about drilling out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” Durbin said.

“We cannot drill our way out of this problem,” Durbin added, noting that the U.S. has less than three percent of the world’s remaining oil reserves but consumes more than 25 percent of the current supply.

Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski said the nation “should not say, if we conserve a little bit more, we do not need to open ANWR.”

“We need to face, as a nation, that we have a reliance on petroleum,” she told colleagues.

By a vote of 83-14, the Senate added a provision to the budget bill that blocks the export of oil from ANWR.

Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, cosponsor of the measure, said it "at least puts a band-aid on a flawed policy."

Without the language, he said, "there is no assurance that one drop of Alaskan oil will get to America."