By Richard Mauer
March 07, 2005
The Senate Budget Committee is expected to produce a budget bill as early as Wednesday. The White House, Alaska's senators and the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee have urged the Budget Committee chairman, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., to include opening the refuge in the budget.
As attention focuses on Gregg, in his first year as budget chairman, supporters and opponents of refuge drilling are still trying to get a read on the vague statements he has made.
"Until everything's on paper, it's not sure," said Gayle Osterberg, spokeswoman for Gregg's committee.
It's unusual - and controversial - to adopt a major national policy through the budget rather than normal legislation. Even Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, a strong proponent of drilling the refuge, said the budget isn't the best place to decide the issue.
"But if the budget does it, we'll use it," he told reporters recently.
Pro-development forces see such a move as their only chance to win passage this year. Under Senate rules, the budget reconciliation, as it is called, is not subject to extended debate. Regular legislation can be filibustered to a slow death unless 60 senators can be mustered to cut off debate.
Despite a Republican gain of four Senate seats in November - they now have 55 seats of the chamber's 100 - the pro-drilling forces concede the 60-vote goal is out of reach. At least four, and probably five, Republicans remain firmly opposed to drilling, while only three Democrats have supported it.
And to show how difficult it is to sell the opening of the refuge, even one of the new GOP senators, Mel Martinez of Florida, a former Bush Cabinet official who shared cramped temporary office space with Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, for two months, is being noncommittal.
"He hasn't really decided his position on the issue," said spokeswoman Melissa Shuffield. "He's speaking to Senator Murkowski about the issue and 100 percent agrees we've got to decrease dependence on foreign oil, but as far as any public decision, that hasn't been made."
The Florida delegation's Republicans and Democrats, including Martinez, strongly oppose drilling off the Florida coast, and opening the Arctic refuge has been suggested as the first step in allowing oil exploration in other environmentally sensitive areas. And Florida - like Gregg's New Hampshire - has a very active and vocal environmental community.
The debate to open the refuge's 1.5 million-acre coastal plain has been a preoccupation of Alaska politicians since it was set aside for "further study" in 1980, when most of the big federal land-use questions were resolved in Congress, including creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
As significant an oil prospect for boosters, the refuge coastal plain has become just as big a symbol for diminishing wilderness and wildlife habitat for conservationists. Their plea to protect the area has resonated with large numbers of Americans, who may never see it in person but who have probably viewed its expansive terrain and diverse wildlife in glossy photographs and television documentaries.
The broad wilderness-vs.-development question has changed little since 1980, but both sides are adapting to changing political, economic and global developments.
On Friday, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, took to the floor of the Senate with a 13-minute speech, arguing that $55-a-barrel oil would become $80-a-barrel oil unless more domestic supplies were found. Other proponents have said they hope consumers will "rise up" to demand drilling in the refuge.
As Stevens spoke, Murkowski and Senate Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., were leading a five-senator, two-Cabinet-officer weekend tour to the North Slope. At a news conference Thursday, Murkowski said she expected to show the all-Republican group how Alaskans are "first-rate, first-class" when it comes to protecting the environment.
Meanwhile, Democrats and environmental lobbyists say the prescription for high oil prices is not drilling, but technological advances in conservation and renewable and alternative energy sources. At the same time, they're making a broad attack on the notion of opening the refuge in a budget bill.