Alaska's congressional delegation is pressing for a rider on a 2001 budget measure to open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
The area is regarded as the country's best prospect for a major oil discovery. But environmentalists and the Clinton administration are opposed to its development.
The stimulus for the renewed ANWR offensive is high gasoline prices. If prices remain in the $2 a gallon range when a final budget is written this summer, drilling advocates think election-year consumer outrage will improve their odds.
Still, leasing in the coastal plain is an emotionally charged issue, said Roger Herrera, a consultant for Anchorage-based Arctic Power, a lead pro-development lobby.
``Whether that emotion will overcome logic remains to be seen,'' Herrera said.
In his weekly national radio address last week, Clinton rejected ``environmentally damaging alternatives, like drilling in the protected and treasured natural habitats of Alaska.''
The push to capitalize on gasoline prices began two weeks ago when Sens. Frank Murkowski and Ted Stevens were joined by 30 other senators, mostly Republicans, in introducing a drilling bill.
Last week in Fairbanks, Murkowski, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he expected a drilling rider to be part of a budget bill. The idea is that lease proceeds could pump as much as $1.5 billion into the federal treasury.
The Senate Budget Committee was set to meet Wednesday, but disputes over the budget bill scuttled the work session.
If the committee can't produce a bill on its own in the next couple of weeks, the Senate leadership could take the unusual step of bringing a budget measure to the floor. Such a bill would probably contain the drilling rider because Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Budget Committee chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., support the idea.
Not all of the Senate's leadership has signed up for ANWR development, however.
New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith, the new chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, revealed in a letter to environmentalists this week that he no longer supports ANWR development.
``After years of research on this issue, I have come to the conclusion that we should not allow oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,'' Smith said in a letter to New Hampshire Citizens for Arctic Wilderness.
``And furthermore, it should be set aside in wilderness designation in perpetuity,'' Smith wrote.
While votes on opening the refuge are likely before Easter, the big fight would occur this summer, perhaps as late as September, after the House and Senate craft a final compromise budget.
Environmental activists also are gearing up for what they and Murkowski separately termed a showdown.
The Sierra Club staged a breakfast briefing for reporters Wednesday to denounce opening the refuge, saying it's the only remaining area along the arctic coast that the oil industry has been kept from exploring.
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