by Zachary Coile
San Francisco Chronicle
February 07, 2005
But after the November election, which added four new Republican senators - and ousted several anti-drilling Democrats - proponents are now bullish they will achieve their goal of opening what they say is America's largest untapped oil reserve.
"This is probably our best shot at actually getting it through and to the president's desk," said House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, the California Republican who has become the House's most vocal advocate for drilling in the refuge.
"I'm optimistic that we finally have a chance to get it done."
Pombo's committee is scheduled to meet Wednesday and is expected to approve a new energy bill that will include provisions to open the Alaskan refuge to drilling. The bill is nearly identical to one passed by the House last year, although it would add a requirement for speedier decisions by federal agencies on lease applications and permits to drill for oil and gas on public lands.
President Bush favors drilling in the refuge - although some proponents believe he has not used the full weight of his bully pulpit to back the plan. In his State of the Union speech, he called on Congress to approve the energy bill, but made no mention of oil development in the refuge.
"Four years of debate is enough," Bush said. "I urge Congress to pass legislation that makes America more secure and less dependent on foreign energy."
Opponents of drilling are also preparing for the looming fight in Congress over the refuge, and they are fully aware the new make-up of the Senate will make it much more difficult to block.
"We've got to gear up for another battle," said Democratic California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who led the Senate floor fight in the last Congress against drilling.
Boxer joined other Democratic lawmakers and environmental leaders last week at a noisy outdoor rally against drilling in the refuge. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., promised to try to filibuster any proposal to open up the refuge, saying Democrats could not allow a wildlife sanctuary to be used for drilling.
"It's time to draw a line in the tundra," Lieberman said.
That line may be tougher to draw now that Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has said he may try to pass drilling in the refuge through budget reconciliation legislation, which can't be filibustered and requires only a simple majority of 51 votes to pass.
While using the budget process could avoid a filibuster, it could also open Senate Republicans to the charge that they are sneaking the measure through Congress.
Carol Browner, the former Environmental Protection Agency administrator under Clinton and chair of the board of the National Audubon Society, said that if proponents want to allow drilling in the wildlife refuge they "should be willing to have a public debate about it, rather than hide it in a budget process that keeps it away from public scrutiny."