ANCHORAGE - Alaska's two U.S. senators introduced legislation Wednesday to open the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development.
They were joined by 30 senators, most of them Republicans. The Clinton administration has steadfastly opposed opening the refuge, on Alaska's North Slope, to leasing.
The Alaska lawmakers cited the world oil shortage and rising gasoline prices caused by foreign production cutbacks in arguing for their bill.
Several Republicans speaking at a press conference condemned the administration's energy policy
``We need a president who will stand up to the extremists and let us produce oil and gas in America,'' said Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican.
Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, wrote the legislation. He said he is confident Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the expected Republican nominee for president, will support opening the refuge.
``I've discussed it with Governor Bush in Austin,'' Murkowski said. ``He favors production in states that want it.''
The coastal plain of the refuge is regarded as the most promising site in North America for a major oil discovery. It will take an act of Congress to open it to leasing.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt issued a statement Wednesday condemning the development bill.
``There is a time and place for oil exploration in Alaska, and we have permitted environmentally sensitive oil exploration in a large area of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, an area set aside for that purpose,'' he said. The reserve is to the west of the North Slope's huge Prudhoe Bay oil field, while ANWR is to the east.
Babbitt said he is recommending Clinton oppose efforts to allow ANWR drilling.
Environmentalists also attacked the legislation.
``It's unfortunate that Sen. Murkowski would prey on the fears and hardships of the American people to push for oil drilling in one of our nation's natural treasures,'' said Adam Kolton of the Alaska Wilderness League.
Murkowski introduced his bill following two days of committee hearings about high gasoline and heating oil prices. Throughout those hearings, Republicans blasted away at the Clinton administration for a drop in domestic oil production and a steady rise in foreign imports.
The country now imports 56 percent of its oil, and the Energy Department said that could rise to 65 percent within two decades.
``The only offset to (growing foreign dependence) is ANWR,'' said Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens.
Opening ANWR has also been pushed by a variety of business and government groups in Alaska. Arctic Power, an Anchorage-based lobbying group, has been funded by the state Legislature and the Knowles administration.
That funding has been opposed by groups such as the Alaska Center for the Environment.