Senate Votes to Allow Drilling in Arctic Reserve
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
Published: March 17, 2005
register to view original article)
WASHINGTON, March 16 - President Bush's long-stalled plan to open the Arctic
National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling cleared a major hurdle on Capitol
Hill on Wednesday, when the Senate voted to include the proposal in its
budget, a maneuver that smoothes the way for Congress to approve drilling
later this year.
By a vote of 51 to 49, Republicans defeated an effort by Democrats to
eliminate the drilling language from the budget. The vote does not ensure
that drilling will be approved. But if the budget is adopted, Senate rules
would allow the passage of a measure opening the refuge with a simple
majority of 51 votes, escaping the threat of a filibuster, which has killed
it in the past.
The vote was a major turning point in one of the most contentious energy
debates in Washington at a time when Senate Republicans, using the power of
a newly expanded majority, have been pushing through bills that businesses
had sought. In another victory for the White House, the Senate also narrowly
beat back an effort by Democrats and moderate Republicans to make it harder
to extend Mr. Bush's tax cuts for the next five years.
Drilling in the Alaskan Arctic is a central component of President Bush's
energy policy. In a statement issued after the vote, Mr. Bush praised the
Senate and also called on Congress to enact a comprehensive energy bill,
which has stalled over Arctic oil exploration in the past.
"This project will keep our economy growing by creating jobs and ensuring
that businesses can expand," Mr. Bush said, "and it will make America less
dependent on foreign sources of energy."
Senate Republicans were ebullient after the vote. "Another example of where
the strength of the majority matters," said Senator George Allen, Republican
Mr. Allen, who last year was chairman of the committee responsible for
electing Republicans to the Senate, called it "the best win."
At issue is whether oil companies should be permitted to explore in 1.5
million acres of coastal plain on Alaska's North Slope, north of the Arctic
Circle, part of the larger 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Proponents of drilling, who include Alaskan development interests and the
American Petroleum Institute, a trade group representing oil companies, say
drilling would reduce dependence on foreign oil and lower soaring oil
prices, which reached $56 a barrel Wednesday.
"It's as important to me as the first step Armstrong took when he stepped
off on the moon," said Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, who has
been working on the drilling issue since the 1950's when he was lawyer in
the Interior Department during the administration of President Dwight D.
Eisenhower. The vote was a bitter defeat for environmentalists, who have
railed against Arctic drilling for decades, arguing that opening the refuge
would threaten the caribou and other wildlife that roam the coastal plain.
Opponents said the Senate was subverting its own procedures.
"Today we saw a Republican sneak attack on one of our most treasured natural
wonders," said Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, who made
opposition to drilling a theme of his presidential campaign.
With 55 Republicans in the Senate, the vote did not break precisely along
party lines. Three Democrats - Daniel K. Akaka and Daniel K. Inouye of
Hawaii and Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana - voted in favor of drilling. Six
Republicans voted against it. Among them was Senator Norm Coleman of
Minnesota, who was elected in 2002; his predecessor, the late Senator Paul
Wellstone, had strongly opposed Arctic drilling.
"I made a campaign promise," Mr. Coleman explained.
The budget language assumes roughly $5 billion over the next five years in
oil drilling revenues from the Arctic over the next decade, with the state
of Alaska and the federal government to split the money. But advocates on
both sides of the debate dispute how much oil is underneath the tundra, and
how much the oil companies care about drilling there. Senator Pete V.
Domenici, the New Mexico Republican who has been a leading proponent of
drilling, has said the refuge could produce up to one million barrels of oil
per day. He and other proponents of drilling say it could be done with
modern equipment that would minimize the disturbance to the environment.
Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, said, "We have the highest
environmental standards of anywhere that you will find in the country."
But opponents, like Senator Maria Cantwell, the Washington Democrat who
sponsored the provision that would have eliminated the drilling language,
argue that drilling in the Arctic would not substantially reduce American
dependence on foreign energy because there is no guarantee that the oil
drawn from the refuge could be exported.
Some cast their opposition in moral, even religious, terms.
Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, showed pictures of caribou
and a polar bear, its reflection shimmering on the ice. "To me this is a
God-given environment," she said. Wednesday's vote did not put an end to the
drilling debate. The Senate must pass a budget, its budget must be
reconciled with the one passed by the House, and then Congress must pass a
second budget-related measure that includes the drilling in a larger package
"It's a long process," Mr. Stevens said.
But none of these bills can be blocked by filibuster.
The drilling issue has been raging in Congress at least since 1980, when
President Jimmy Carter, in a compromise, signed legislation that both
expanded the Arctic refuge and allowed a small slice of it to be opened to
oil exploration, subject to Congressional approval. In 1995, Congress gave
that approval, using the same budget maneuver that Republicans used on
Wednesday, but the measure was vetoed by President Bill Clinton.
Two years ago, Republicans tried the maneuver again, but with only 51
Republicans in the Senate, some of whom opposed drilling, it failed.
In recent weeks, advocates have been conducting an intense lobbying
campaign. President Jimmy Carter has also made phone calls urging Democrats,
like Ms. Landrieu, who had supported drilling, to oppose it.
As senators were voting on Wednesday, Ms. Landrieu stood at the back of the
chamber, talking to colleagues on both sides of the aisle with a conflicted
look on her face. At one point, moments before she cast her vote, she tapped
Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat who opposes drilling, on
the arm and whispered to him. He said later that she told him she would be
"I was disappointed," Mr. Lieberman said. "I feel it personally."