By ZACHARY COILE
San Francisco Chronicle
January 27, 2006
Pro-drilling lawmakers now are making a new argument, saying rising oil prices and fears of an oil shock sparked by the escalating dispute over Iran's nuclear program provide more reasons to open the Alaskan refuge.
"I can't imagine that anybody would expect with the Iranian situation that we will sit by and not take another shot at (drilling in the refuge)," Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a longtime champion of drilling, said during a speech Wednesday.
"We've got to find a way," Domenici said. "We think there's one out there."
But opponents of drilling argue that GOP leaders face even tougher odds trying to approve the measure this year.
In November, moderate House Republicans staged a revolt against the drilling proposal, stripping it from a leadership-sponsored budget bill. A month later, Senate Democrats and a few Republicans blocked Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens' effort to authorize drilling by attaching it to a defense spending bill that funded U.S. troops and hurricane relief.
"None of the politics have changed," said Kevin Curtis, a vice president at the National Environmental Trust, an environmental group. "Ted Stevens and the pro-(drilling) folks said that last year was their best shot - and they didn't get it.
"If anything, everybody has dug in even more," he said. "Election-year dynamics almost always break in favor of the environment. Who wants to be out there running for re-election having despoiled the environment?"
Federal lawmakers, Alaska officials, native groups, oil companies and environmentalists have been battling for more than 25 years over the future of the refuge's 1.5 million-acre coastal plain. Geologists believe the plain contains one of the nation's largest untapped oil fields, but it's also the calving grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd and home to polar bears, musk oxen and millions of migratory birds.
Domenici told reporters after his speech Wednesday that GOP leaders may have miscalculated by tying drilling to a complex budget bill, which also featured controversial cuts to Medicaid, food stamps, student loans and other programs.
"I'm just going to tell you why (drilling) failed, just plain and simple - because we had too many things on it," Domenici said. "ANWR by itself would be law today if it was (alone) in the budget reconciliation bill."
Domenici said he's now considering whether to tack the drilling provision onto a new budget bill. The measure would require 51 votes rather than the 60 needed to override a filibuster. He said it was the best strategy available, although he added it still would be difficult to pass it.
House Republicans also are plotting their own strategy to open the refuge, but it will be fought by party moderates - especially those in swing districts that could be crucial to the GOP's effort to retain its narrow majority in the November midterm elections.
"It certainly will be tough in an election year," said Jennifer Zuccarelli, a spokeswoman for Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chairman of the House Resources Committee. "But this is a big energy year when you consider our growing foreign imports, our shaky foreign relations, not to mention rising energy costs. By keeping (the refuge) locked up, we are not doing anything to help our energy supply situation."
Republican leaders and the White House are also renewing their efforts to increase energy production off the nation's coasts, which failed last year.
Pombo is considering new hearings on a bill that would end the 23-year-old moratorium on offshore drilling, allowing drilling for natural gas - but not oil - on about 85 percent of the nation's coastline that is now off-limits. Pombo is also pushing a plan to give states the ability to opt out of the moratorium to drill for either oil or gas.
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