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Senators adopt new strategy for Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Anchorage Daily News


March 15, 2008

WASHINGTON -- Hoping to capitalize on the concerns of ordinary consumers at the gas pump, Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Ted Stevens introduced legislation this week that would allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge if the price of oil hits $125 a barrel.

The senators hope that high oil prices, hovering at $110 a barrel, will change the minds of fellow senators who, until now, have been opposed to opening the wildlife refuge to drilling. The two Republicans are hoping that the next clamor for drilling in ANWR will come from consumers who see the price of a gallon of gas creeping closer to $4 a gallon.

"This has got to come from the ground up," Murkowski said. "From the constituents, from the American consumer saying, 'Enough, Congress.' This is the No. 1 issue domestically in the country right now, what is happening with the price of energy."

Efforts to open up the refuge for drilling go way back in Congress, with Stevens or Murkowski (or her father, Frank Murkowski, a former senator and governor) offering up some form of legislation annually. In 2005, when Congress rejected yet another bid to open the refuge to development, Stevens called it the "saddest day of my life."

This year's proposal has a few new twists that Murkowski, the lead sponsor, says might help persuade some former skeptics.

After the state of Alaska gets a cut of the 12.5 percent royalties, the rest of the proceeds would go toward alternative-energy research overseen by the Department of Energy, federal programs for low-income home-energy assistance or weatherization, and the food-stamp program.

Drilling in ANWR would do more than any economic stimulus package, Stevens said. It also would trim the U.S. dependency on foreign sources of oil.

"The money we send overseas for oil could be spent in the United States, stimulate our economy," he said. "I think this country's going to need a real stimulus before this year's over."

The Bush administration also sees the development of ANWR as a national-security issue and continues to support the "environmentally responsible production of energy" from the refuge, said Shane Wolfe, a spokesman for Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.

The Interior Department hasn't seen the legislation and wouldn't comment on it, but the president's 2009 budget assumes that ANWR would open for development, Wolfe said. The first lease sales in 2010, if drilling is allowed, could bring in as much as $9 billion, Wolfe said.

"The coastal plain of ANWR is the nation's single greatest onshore prospect for future oil," he said.

But environmentalists say they're confident that Murkowski and Stevens simply don't have 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster that would allow the bill to be heard. It's equally unlikely that a Democratic-led House would even consider hearing the legislation, said Myke Bybee, a spokesman for the Sierra Club.

Environmentalists also have a proven track record at rallying national opposition to drilling in the refuge and could mobilize their forces with a simple e-mail campaign. They're confident that outside of Alaska, there simply isn't public support for drilling in ANWR, Bybee said.

"No amount of oil and no amount of money is worth despoiling the Arctic Refuge," Bybee said. "I don't think there's support for opening up a special place like the Arctic Refuge at any cost, at any amount of oil or at any cost of oil."

Drilling in ANWR won't "help anyone at the pump," said Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League. "The consumer is not that naive."

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, doesn't support drilling in ANWR, and neither do the two Democratic contenders: Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.

It's an interesting tactic to tie the present-day price of oil to the decision whether to drill, said Frank Verrastro, senior fellow and energy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. But even if Congress were to sign off on opening ANWR to development today, it would have little to do with the price a decade from now.

"You're talking eight to 10 years," Verrastro said. "And during that time maybe we would have lost some production, maybe demand would have gone down because of sustained higher prices."


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