WASHINGTON - The House voted late Wednesday to allow oil drilling in an Alaska wildlife refuge as part of a broad energy bill that Democrats said would funnel billions of dollars to highly profitable energy companies while doing little to promote conservation or ease gasoline prices.
The bill's sponsors said oil from Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as much as a million barrels a day, will be needed to help curtail the country's growing dependence on oil imports. Opponents argued the oil wouldn't be available for a decade and even then at levels that would not significantly affect oil prices or imports.
The bill calls for $8.1 billion in tax breaks over 10 years, most of it going to promote coal, nuclear, oil and natural gas energy industries.
Development of the Alaska refuge has been a contentious issue for nearly a decade. Environmentalists fear a spider web of drilling platforms and pipelines would harm the area's polar bears, caribou, migrating birds and other wildlife.
Senate Democrats have pledged to filibuster any energy bill that would open the refuge to oil companies. An amendment to strip the Alaska refuge provision from the energy bill failed Wednesday night 231-200.
A final vote on the energy legislation is expected by the House today.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who offered the ANWR amendment, noted that the bill does nothing to improve the fuel economy of automobiles, which he said use 70 percent of the country's oil, and that it was wrong "to then turn to the wilderness areas and say we need energy."
An attempt to require automakers to increase fuel economy to a fleet average of 33 miles per gallon over the next decade was defeated 254-177.
Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., a co-sponsor of the auto fuel economy proposal, said it would have reduced oil use by 2 million barrels a day - more than could be taken from ANWR - by 2020. He described as "a bunch of nonsense" claims by opponents that the increased fuel economy would cost the auto industry jobs, force consumers to buy smaller cars and reduce automobile safety.
"We don't need to micromanage our auto manufactures," countered Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.
Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., acknowledged that ANWR was "a very unique place" that deserves protection but argued that its oil can be developed using modern drilling techniques without harming the environment and wildlife.
"We don't have to choose between providing the energy resources ... and protecting our environment," he said.
President Bush on Wednesday urged Congress to give him an energy bill by summer, including a go-ahead for oil exploration in the Alaska refuge. He said the oil can be recovered "with almost no impact on land and local wildlife" and ANWR's production would amount to nearly half the oil the U.S. now gets from Venezuela.
Speaking to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Bush said swift action on energy by Congress - where a succession of energy bills have languished for four years - would "send an important signal" that the country "is serious about solving America's energy problems."