Friday, May 26, 2006

House votes for oil drilling in Alaska refuge

House votes for oil drilling in Alaska refuge
By Chris Baltimore

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday approved a plan to allow oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The House voted 225-201 to approve a plan sponsored by California Republican Richard Pombo that would allow drilling on 2,000 acres of ANWR out of the refuge's total 19 million acres.

It was the 12th vote on the divisive ANWR drilling issue since 1995 in the House. The ANWR drilling plan faces a nearly certain filibuster threat in the Senate, where pro-drilling Republicans hold a slimmer majority.

President George W. Bush, who has long sought to open the Arctic refuge to drilling, welcomed the vote as a step toward developing a reliable domestic source of energy.

"It will make America less dependent on foreign sources of energy, eventually by up to a million barrels of crude oil a day -- a nearly 20 percent increase over our current domestic production," he said in a statement.

Tapping the 10 billion barrels of crude estimated to lay beneath the refuge is a key part of the Bush administration's national energy plan.

"Had President Clinton not vetoed the ANWR drilling bill in 1995, we would have at least an additional 1 million barrels a day of domestic oil production .... today," U.S. Energy Secretary Sam Bodman said.

But many Democrats and environmentalists argue there is not enough oil to justify destroying the habitat for ANWR's polar bears, caribou and other wildlife.

"We should not be so willing to sacrifice this unspoiled area for just six months of oil," said Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat.

Pombo criticized Democrats for repeatedly trying to block ANWR. "Being against everything is not an energy policy," he said, insisting that ANWR can be drilled in a way that does not harm the environment.

Anti-drilling Democrats said ANWR development was merely a Republican balm to soothe voters' anxiety over rising gasoline prices ahead of the Memorial Day holiday weekend, the unofficial start of the summer driving season, when gasoline demand usually peaks.

"Families will pay $50 to tank up this weekend and Republicans will pretend that they really care," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat.

Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said ANWR supplies could reduce gasoline prices by about 40 cents per gallon, if ANWR is tapped.

The Senate this year included ANWR drilling in appropriations legislation that is not subject to a filibuster, but House budget-writers balked at including it in their version.

"Everyone knows this bill is dead on arrival in the U.S. Senate," DeGette said.

The ANWR bill that passed the House would need to garner 60 votes in the Senate to circumvent a filibuster, in which it could be talked to death.

At peak production, ANWR could produce about 1.5 million barrels per day of oil, which bill sponsors say could go a long way toward replacing oil imports from Middle East producers like Saudi Arabia.

If Congress opened ANWR to drilling, it would take about 10 more years for the refuge's oil production to peak, according to the Energy Department.