WASHINGTON - President Bush's plan to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska is all but dead for now, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said Sunday.
Debate on the administration's energy plan is expected to begin in the Senate this week. The bill to be debated does not include ANWR development. Under a 1980 federal law, the coastal plain can neither be explored for oil nor declared permanently off-limits without an act of Congress.
An amendment that would expand domestic production of fuel, principally by drilling in ANWR, is opposed by most Senate Democrats and about a half-dozen GOP senators. Republicans have acknowledged they lack the 60 votes needed to break an expected Democratic filibuster on the bill.
Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that opponents still had not rounded up the required votes.
When asked, "So it's dead?" Daschle said, "Well, at least right now it is, correct."
Daschle and others have said raising federal mileage standards for automobiles would save more oil than drilling in the refuge could produce and send down the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
"We can do so much more - 15 times more - by passing the fuel-efficiency standards," he said. "That's the way to deal with energy policy, not going into the most pristine part" of the refuge, he said.
Appearing with Daschle, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, said, "I'm willing to try to do things on the conservation side and on alternative fuels - which I really don't think would work or will produce very much - but I also think you need to have the production side."
Alaska's congressional delegation, the state Legislature and a variety of business and labor groups back exploratory drilling in the refuge's coastal plain, considered to be the most promising new area for oil and gas production in the state.
Sen. Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said allowing drilling in the area would lead to tens of thousands of jobs.
"These are high-paying jobs. That's why the unions are for it," Murkowski said in a recent prepared statement. "It will generate somewhere in the area of $2.5 billion in federal lease sales that will come back into the Treasury."
Environmentalists long have argued that development of the oil in refuge would jeopardize wildlife, particularly a migrating caribou herd that is central to the subsistence way of life of Gwich'ins in Arctic Village, just south of the refuge.
The GOP-led House has passed a bill that would open up the plain, an area of 1.5 million acres.
Lott said the refuge, "while it might be pristine, is pretty barren."