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Senate OKs Energy Development in ANWR After Years of Defeat

In a significant victory for pro-drilling forces, Senate Republicans last Wednesday narrowly approved opening up a portion of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and natural gas development.

By a mostly party line vote of 51-49, pro-ANWR Republicans defeated an amendment sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) that sought to strip out a provision in the fiscal 2006 budget resolution favoring drilling during the winter months on a 2,000-acre portion of the coastal region of the Arctic refuge. Passage of the measure supporting drilling still needs House concurrence and the president's signature.

The Senate vote was a major win for the Bush administration, which has championed ANWR development as part of its national energy policy.

This is the "right thing" to do for Alaska, and is backed by the state's two Republican senators, Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski, and many Alaskans, said Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS). "I don't understand why a senator from Massachusetts and Washington and Maine are trying to dictate what should happen in this area."

For Stevens, who has fought for 24 years to allow drilling activity in the Arctic, the issue had become very personal. He implored Congress to "keep its word" and reject the Cantwell amendment.

Opening up ANWR to exploration is a "bad precedent," responded Cantwell on the Senate floor Wednesday. "If you decide to drill in Alaska...what will stop them from drilling in other parts" of the nation. It is the "wrong direction for America" because it would increase the country's reliance on fossil fuel.

Senate Republican leaders mounted a major effort over the past weeks to win support for inserting ANWR-friendly language in the budget resolution. They claimed that the budget blueprint was the right legislative vehicle to clear the way for drilling in the refuge.

Working in ANWR's favor this time around was the fact that the budget resolution could not be filibustered by anti-ANWR drilling forces, primarily Democrats. As a result, it required only a simple majority (51 votes) to pass.

The Senate budget blueprint for fiscal 2006, which was voted out by the Senate Budget Committee last week, assumes that ANWR will produce $2.5 billion in receipts over five years. It includes instructions for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to report back to the Senate Budget panel with legislative language that authorizes exploration in ANWR.

Stevens, who has led the drive for producers to gain access to ANWR, engaged in a war of words with Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), who accused Stevens of "unethical conduct" because he backed the ANWR-friendly budget resolution. "I take umbrage at his comments," Stevens countered.

"We've been accused of using strange procedures here" to pass ANWR as part of the budget resolution, the Alaska senator said. Republicans pointed out that Congress approved opening ANWR in a budget resolution in 1995, but it was vetoed by President Clinton.

The favorable vote by the Senate culminates a long-standing, often bitter dispute between anti-ANWR forces (environmentalists) and ANWR-friendly forces (energy industry and congressional allies) over whether exploration and production would cause environmental harm to the Arctic refuge, located in Northeast Alaska.

Although ANWR passed the Senate, it still could become the casualty of budget fights. Both the Senate and House still must pass their budget measures later this year, which has been no easy feat. This has proved to be "troublesome over the past several years," said a Capitol Hill aide, noting that lawmakers failed to pass a budget measure last year. If the two houses approve their individual budget bills this year, the next step would be a House-Senate conference committee, where they would seek to reconcile the differences in their bills. ANWR is one of those differences. While ANWR is included in the Senate budget measure, the House Budget Committee last week did not make ANWR part of its budget blueprint for fiscal 2006.

Assuming that the House and Senate reconcile their budgets to include ANWR, and that the conference report is subsequently approved by Congress, it still would have to be signed into law by President Bush. The president favors drilling in ANWR, but there could be another budgetary item or items that would cause him to veto the legislation.

This marked the third vote in the Senate on ANWR in the past three years. In March 2003, anti-drilling senators fought off a mostly Republican drive to clear the path for future oil and gas drilling in the Alaska refuge as part of the budget process. And in April 2002, Senate Democrats -- aided by a handful of Republicans and Independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont -- halted the GOP-led drive to include ANWR drilling in the omnibus energy bill.

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