A closely divided Senate voted Wednesday to approve oil drilling in an Alaska wildlife refuge, a major victory for President Bush and a stinging defeat for environmentalists who have fought the idea for decades.
By a 51-49 vote, the Senate put a refuge drilling provision in next year's budget, depriving opponents of the chance to use a filibuster to try to block it. Filibusters, which require 60 votes to overcome, have been used to defeat drilling proposals in the past.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who has fought for 24 years to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil companies, acknowledged it still could be "a long process" before a final drilling measure clears Congress. Lawmakers must agree on the final budget, something they failed to do last year, or Wednesday's vote would have been for naught.
Also, the House did not include an Arctic refuge measure in its budget, a difference that will have to be worked out in future negotiations.
Nevertheless, the Senate made clear by Wednesday's vote that a majority now supports tapping what is believed to be 10.4 billion or more barrels of oil within the refuge's 1.5 million-acre coastal plain, said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. Two years ago, a similar attempt to use the budget process to open the refuge failed by three votes.
But that was before Republicans last November expanded their majority. Only seven Republicans, all moderates, bucked their party Wednesday and voted with most Democrats against opening the refuge.
Kaktovik residents gathered around their television sets Wednesday morning, closely following a debate 3,100 miles away on whether to allow oil drilling in their backyard.
"We've got our work cut out for us," said Mayor Lon Sonsalla from his village about 850 miles northwest of Juneau.
"Today's vote to us means that we are now given notice that we have to be on our toes."
Officially, the largest town on ANWR's coastal plain supports responsible development of oil and gas in the refuge. But opinions among residents vary, Sonsalla said.
He said Kaktovik must have a say in developing the rules, and that residents' access to traditional hunting and fishing areas must be preserved.
Fenton Rexford, tribal administrator of the Native village of Kaktovik, said he has similar concerns. The Inupiat village's traditional lands stretch from near Prudhoe Bay across the Canadian border and is separate from the city of Kaktovik, which is under the jurisdiction of the state.
The tribal government's responsibility is to protect traditional hunting and camping areas, as well as cemeteries on the coastal plain, Rexford said. Within the refuge, there are also Native land allotments that the tribal government plans to ask the federal Bureau of Land Management to re-examine, he said.
"There's monetary value and then there is value as far as subsistence sites, camping sites, fishing sites," Rexford said.
Reaction to the Senate vote by the state's political leaders was enthusiastic.
Alaska Sen. Donald Olson, D-Nome, whose district stretches across the North Slope and includes Kaktovik, is a longtime supporter of opening the refuge.
"I'm glad that it passed. I know we worked a long time for it," Olson said. "But I just want to make sure that the concerns and issues of the local people and Mayor Lon Sonsalla are on the front of our radar screen so they are not overrun by industry."
Gov. Frank Murkowski, recovering from knee surgery in Anchorage on Wednesday, said he was working the phones from 4:30 a.m. Alaska time up to the vote.
Murkowski said he has no doubts the major oil companies will bid on land tracts in the refuge and expects the state and federal government to evenly split the revenue generated there.
Environmentalists for years have fought the ANWR development, contending it would lead to a spider web of drilling platforms, pipelines and roads that would adversely impact the calving grounds of caribou, polar bears and millions of migratory birds that use the refuge's coastal plain.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and other drilling opponents argued that more oil would be saved than ANWR could produce if Congress enacted an energy policy focusing on conservation, more efficient cars and trucks and increased reliance on renewable fuels.