Senate to debate bill on ANWR

Democrats offering alternative

Posted: Monday, February 25, 2002

WASHINGTON - The Senate is ready to take up broad energy legislation that could lead to exploratory drilling for oil and gas in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and changes in gas-mileage rules.

Debate expected this week comes nine months after President Bush outlined his plan to increase the nation's energy supply by expanding oil and gas drilling on public land and rejuvenating nuclear power.

The House passed its version, but in the Senate, majority Democrats have offered legislation that relies more heavily on conservation.

To help bolster his argument for Senate passage, Bush checked out the engines of three "hybrid" vehicles that were parked on the White House driveway. He said more hybrids would be put onto the U.S. market next year - good news for American consumers who "understand the ramifications of dependency on foreign sources of crude oil."

"Dependence can lead to price shocks and fuel shortages. And this dependence on foreign oil is a matter of national security," Bush said. "To put it bluntly, sometimes we rely upon energy sources from countries that don't particularly like us."

The crisis atmosphere of a year ago has all but disappeared - energy prices are low, supplies plentiful - and the urgency to act, too, may have lost steam, say lawmakers and lobbyists.

Bush, in a weekend push to promote his plan, dismissed claims that it focuses too much on fossil-fuel production and not enough on conservation and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

"Conservation technology and renewables are important. Yet they alone cannot solve our energy problems," he said in his weekly radio address.

During his recent trip to Asia, Bush stopped in Alaska where he again stressed the need to drill for oil in ANWR. The idea won mention in his Saturday broadcast, with the president saying drilling can go ahead without hurting the environment while also providing jobs.

Environmentalists have pledged to protect the wildlife refuge, and some Senate Democrats say they will stall energy legislation if Republicans press the refuge drilling issue - as most expect them to do.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, has offered a broad proposal that senators probably will consider this week.

"We have a real opportunity here," Daschle said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." "There are some big differences between what the Republicans are proposing, which is really the policies of the past, and what the Democrats proposing, which is a real look to a future for energy policy that is vastly different and exciting."

At least two weeks of debate are predicted.

The House bill, strongly endorsed by Republicans and the White House, tilts strongly toward expanding energy production and would allow drilling in the refuge. It also offers billions of dollars in tax subsidies to producers.

Senate Democrats reject development of the refuge and emphasize conservation: sharp increases in fuel economy for automobiles, tougher federal energy efficiency standards and greater support for renewable fuels and natural gas as opposed to oil.

Tax breaks in the Democratic proposal - about $16 billion worth, or about half of what the House has offered - lean more toward conservation and renewable fuel sources as opposed to the oil, gas and nuclear industries focused on in the House version.

Sen. Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said drilling in the refuge is essential to lessening U.S. dependence on foreign oil. He plans an amendment that would give oil companies access to the refuge's coastal plain, where billions of barrels of oil are believed available.

Murkowski said he has the majority needed to get it passed, but not - at least so far - the 60 votes needed to overcome a sure filibuster.

Other issues also could scuttle a potential compromise:

• Automobile mileage: A Democratic proposal would increase fuel economy by 30 percent, to an average of 35 miles per gallon by 2013, and remove preferences now given to sport utility vehicles. Currently, new automobiles are required to meet a fleet average of 27.5 mpg and SUVs and minivans 20.7 mpg.

• Ethanol: Farm interests and the oil industry are fighting over whether to increase the use of corn-based ethanol as a motor fuel by establishing a "renewable fuels" requirement for gasoline.

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