ANCHORAGE - Alaska U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski will join other Republicans later this month in submitting an energy package aimed at opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development.
U.S. Rep. Don Young, another Alaska Republican, introduced legislation last month to open the refuge's 1.5 million-acre coastal plain to drilling.
With the country feeling the pinch of high gasoline, oil and natural gas prices, supporters of oil development see the best opportunity since the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill to get legislation passed. Next year, they note, energy prices may be lower and lawmakers more skittish about supporting the controversial issue right before an election.
"This may be the best chance to open ANWR in a dozen years," said Roger Herrera, who is lobbying Congress to allow drilling in the refuge.
The politics may be aligning to open the refuge, but oil development opponents promise a stiff fight. Opening ANWR requires congressional approval and how the vote would fall is unclear.
Environmentalists are mobilizing to keep the refuge closed.
"This is the No. 1 issue facing national environmental groups," said Adam Kolton of the Alaska Wilderness League in Washington.
Environmental groups lost this year's first skirmish on the refuge - over confirmation of Interior Secretary Gale Norton, whom they condemned, in part, because of her support for ANWR drilling.
Aside from strong White House support for oil exploration in the refuge, other factors are improving the odds of opening the refuge, said Bill Horn, a former assistant secretary of the Interior in the Reagan administration.
In the past year, natural gas prices have tripled and wholesale gasoline prices have doubled. OPEC's stiff limits on oil production continue, underlining the nation's vulnerability to foreign supplies. High energy prices are bearing much of the blame for the nation's economic slowdown. And California residents are grappling with rolling blackouts.
"In this environment, ANWR is in play," Horn said.
Federal geologists estimate ANWR could produce 1 million barrels a day, which would roughly double Alaska oil production. While that's enough crude to swell West Coast supply, it would not break OPEC's grip on crude prices.
Further, more Alaska crude would do nothing to solve California's electricity crisis, which is due largely to a shortage of electric generation capacity. But the White House argues that the crisis underscores the need for a national energy strategy that will lead to increased domestic production, including oil from the refuge.
In addition to opening ANWR, the Republican Senate bill is expected to include provisions for alternative fuels research and conservation that could win moderate votes. Environmentalists argue tougher fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks would conserve as much oil as the refuge may produce.
ANWR is not negotiable, said Kolton of the Alaska Wilderness League. Environmentalists will not trade away ANWR for research subsidies for cleaner cars or tax breaks for renewable fuel sources, he said.
The critical battle will likely be fought in the next 11 months, observers say.
Perhaps the last Alaska development project on the same scale, the 1973 Senate vote on construction of the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline, deadlocked 49-49 on pipeline legislation. Then-Vice President Spiro Agnew cast the deciding vote.
With Vice President Dick Cheney's pro-drilling stance, Cam Toohey of Arctic Power noted: "If it comes down to that, we've got the right vice president."
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