This year appeared to be the best opportunity for Congress to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to energy development and expand leasing in protected offshore regions, but that chance may have gone down in flames late Wednesday.

An agreement adopted by the House Rules Committee stripped both ANWR and expanded Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) leasing from the $54 billion deficit-reduction bill.

The provisions were dropped to win support from a group of moderate Republicans, led by Rep. Charles Bass (R-NH), for the budget package. The moderates had vowed to vote against the deficit-reduction package if ANWR remained in the bill. Even with the backing of the moderates, the vote on the House deficit-reduction bill is expected to be tight.

The House was scheduled to consider the measure on the floor Thursday, but it recessed shortly after it convened in order to scare up some more votes to pass the deficit-reduction package. In a sign the bill could be in jeopardy as a result of the concessions to the moderates, the House postponed floor consideration of the bill until next week.

“I think it’s likely it will be back [next week],” said House Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-MO) on the House floor Thursday. “It’s certainly possible.”

The move by the Rules Committee was a major win for the moderate Republicans and environmentalists, but a setback for a number of conservative Republicans who told House leaders earlier this week that they would vote against the deficit-cutting measure if ANWR and OCS were struck (see Daily GPI, Nov. 9). It also was a big loss for the natural gas industry.

Jack N. Gerard, president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council, said he was “flabbergasted” by the House decision. “Is it going to take skyrocketing heating bills for those who can afford it least, hundreds of thousands more lost jobs and a consumer revolt before they recognize this is a crisis?” The ACC represents major chemical makers, which are large consumers of natural gas.

The dumping of the ANWR and OCS provisions is “deeply disappointing,” said David Parker, president of the American Gas Association (AGA), which represents gas utilities. ‘The issue is not whether natural gas production harms the environment…The real issue is whether Congress cares about people, or about posturing. It’s past time to act.”

Before winter ends, Parker called on House leaders to schedule a stand-alone vote to expand access to the Outer Continental Shelf. In the meantime, the AGA urged President Bush to immediately open currently unavailable areas of the gas-rich Lease 181 in the eastern Gulf of Mexico to leasing (see related story).

OCS and ANWR development, which was proposed by the House Resources Committee to increase federal revenues, gained significant momentum following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which shut in oil and natural gas production in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Rules Committee agreement applies only to the deficit-reduction measure pending in the House (HR 4241) and not an eventual compromise measure with the Senate, but House moderate Republicans said they are determined to keep ANWR out of a final bill, according to a report in Congressional Quarterly’s Green Sheets. Sens. Pete Domenici (R-NM), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Ted Stevens (R-AK) are equally as determined to keep ANWR in a final bill.

The Senate last week approved development of a small portion of the coastal plain of ANWR as part of its deficit-reduction package, which leaves open the possibility that ANWR could be included in the final report that emerges from the House-Senate conference on the bill.

While Republicans have been split in their support for ANWR and OCS in the bill, Democrats are almost uniformly opposed to the inclusion of the energy measures in the package.

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