WASHINGTON - The Senate dismissed a centerpiece of President Bush's energy policy today, denying Republicans a vote on oil drilling in an Alaska wildlife refuge as part of an energy bill.
Senate Republicans fell 14 votes short, 54-46, of the 60 needed to break a Democratic filibuster of an amendment, offered by Alaska's senators, to open the wildlife refuge to oil companies.
The vote was expected to force Republicans to withdraw the measure and essentially clear the way for approval of the energy legislation, probably next week.
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Minutes after the vote, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said:
"At a time when oil and gas prices are rising, the Senate today missed an opportunity to lead America to greater energy independence. The president will continue to fight for the tens of thousands of jobs that are created by opening ANWR, as well as - more importantly - for the need for America to be able to achieve more energy independence that would result from opening ANWR."
Fleischer sidestepped a question on whether Bush would sign an energy bill that does not include the ANWR proposal. "We'll go to conference and try to improve the bill from what the Senate passed," he said.
But the fight over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is not over. The House already has approved development of the refuge's coastal plain and the two versions, if a Senate bill is passed, would have to be merged.
Drilling supporters argued the refuge's oil was essential for America's energy security and its development would produce tens of thousands of jobs.
But Democrats said no oil would flow for a decade and would have little impact in oil imports or fuel prices.
"Development (of the refuge) would irreversibly damage this natural resource," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., a leader of the filibuster.
Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, who has led the fight to open the refuge, said that without ANWR drilling "there is not one single thing in this energy bill that increases oil production.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, blamed "radical environmental organizations" for shutting off a needed energy resource. His state would receive half of the royalties from oil taken from the refuge.
An attempt to gain some pro-drilling votes by funneling money from future Arctic refuge oil leases to help steelworkers and coal miners was rejected 64-36.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who has led efforts in the Senate to try to help steelworkers facing economic hard times, called the proposal "an empty promise" that could later be dropped, and urged its rejection.
Drilling for the billions of barrels of oil believed to lie beneath the coastal plain of the sprawling refuge has been a centerpiece of Bush's energy plan released a year ago - and the most contentious issue facing senators trying to craft energy legislation.
Bush repeatedly has argued that the oil can be extracted without harming the environment or wildlife, and he has cited Iraq's current oil embargo as proof that new drilling is needed more than ever.
But environmentalists and many Senate Democrats -- as well as a handful of GOP senators -- argued the oil can be found elsewhere without risking the refuge and its wildlife, including a herd of 123,000 caribou that calves each year on the coastal plain.
The House approved an energy package last year that includes refuge drilling.
During two days of sometimes emotional debate, drilling supporters assailed "radical" environmentalists who have opposed drilling and talked as much about the recent turmoil in the Middle East and Iraq's suspension of oil shipments as about the refuge itself.
"There's an inferno in the Mideast and we're importing more than 50 percent of our oil," said Murkowski, arguing that extracting the oil in ANWR is a matter of national security because it will cut the need for imports.
Drilling opponents scoffed at that argument.
"I've learned a few lessons about national security as a soldier and a senator, but the mathematics I learned in elementary school prove that Arctic drilling won't make a difference for national security," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a decorated Vietnam veteran.
Kerry, who has led the filibuster against refuge drilling, said the United States has 3 percent of the world's oil and uses 25 percent of the world's supply. "The solution is not in the Arctic," he said.
If energy security was the issue, he said, Republicans should have supported his proposal, which was rejected earlier, to require increased automobile fuel efficiency.
The drilling issue has attracted intense lobbying by environmentalists who have made it their No. 1 issue. Stung last summer when the Republican-controlled House passed an energy bill that would open the refuge to oil development, they vowed to press the issue in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
"Oil rigs do not belong in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge," said Mark Van Putten, president of the National Wildlife Federation.
Geologists believe ANWR's 1.5 million-acre coastal plain may contain 11.6 billion barrels of oil, almost as much as has been taken from nearby Prudhoe Bay.
At peak production, ANWR would supply about 1.9 million barrels a day, according to the Interior Department estimates. The United States today uses 19 million barrels a day, 57 percent of that from imports.
As the Senate vote neared, lobbyists for the Teamsters touted the jobs that drilling would produce. Rival Alaska native groups have flown in from the North Slope to argue both for and against drilling. The state of Alaska, which would get half the royalties from oil development, has poured millions of dollars into the pro-drilling effort.
The big oil companies, however, largely have kept silent, their attention on exploration elsewhere.