WASHINGTON - Citing the public outcry over $3-a-gallon gasoline and America's heavy reliance on foreign oil, the House on Thursday voted to open an Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling, knowing the prospects for Senate approval were slim.
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Drilling proponents argued that the refuge on Alaska's North Slope would provide 1 million barrels a day of additional domestic oil at peak production and reduce the need for imports.
But opponents to developing what environmentalists argue is a pristine area where drilling will harm caribou, polar bears and migratory birds, said Congress should pursue conservation and alternative energy sources that would save more oil than would be tapped from the refuge.
The House voted 225-201 to direct the Interior Department to open oil leases on the coastal strip of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - an area of 1.5 million acres that is thought likely to hold about 11 billion barrels of recoverable oil.
But the action may be little more than symbolic. Arctic refuge development, while approved by the House five times, repeatedly has been blocked in the Senate where drilling proponents have been unable to muster the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
"We need to develop energy, here at home. ... We can't say no to everything," declared Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., who pressed for a House vote on opening the refuge that lies east of the declining Prudhoe Bay oil fields 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Access to ANWR's oil has been a key part of President Bush's energy agenda, although over the last five years he's been unable to convince Congress of its merits. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman on Thursday urged the Senate to pass a drilling measure "so we can strengthen our nation's energy security."
Bush praised the House vote. "This project will keep our economy growing by creating jobs and ensuring that businesses can expand," he said in a statement. "And it will make America less dependent on foreign sources of energy."
The refuge was set aside for protection in 1960 and expanded by Congress to 19 million acres in 1980 with a stipulation that its oil - limited to the coastal strip - could be developed, but only if Congress allows it.
The federal government would share revenues equally with the state.
While oil companies have long eyed the area where federal geologists estimate anywhere from 5.4 billion to as much as 16 billion barrels of oil may be recoverable, environmentalists consider it one of their top priorities for protection.
"There are simply some places that should be off limits to drilling. The Arctic refuge should be one of them," said Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif.
The coastal strip is a calving area for caribou, home to polar bears and musk oxen, and a seasonal destination for millions of migratory birds.
Drilling opponents cited an Energy Department analysis that ANWR's oil would have little impact on gasoline prices and reduce imports by only a few percentage points. Currently 60 percent of the 21 million barrels of oil used daily in the United States comes from imports.
Advocates for opening the refuge to energy development said the tundra and its wildlife can be protected using modern drilling techniques and environmental restrictions. They contended the additional domestic oil would help move the country toward more energy independence.
Congress approved drilling in the refuge in 1995, but President Clinton vetoed the bill.
Had Clinton not issued his veto "we would have had a million barrels of oil today," said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. "We should be drilling off shore, we should be drilling in the Rockies and most of all we should be drilling in the Arctic refuge."
Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., countered that had Congress passed improved auto fuel economy measures 11 years ago when they were considered, today "we would save far more oil than ANWR would produce."
"This Congress hasn't voted on a single conservation measure since gasoline hit $3 a gallon," said Boehlert.
"Rather than debating how we could increase the fuel efficiency standards (of cars) over the next few years, we are debating about a bill that won't produce the first barrel of oil for 10 years and it will come from a pristine wildlife refuge," complained Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a leading drilling opponent.
The vote fell heavily along party lines. Twenty-seven Democrats joined the Republican majority in support of the legislation. Only 30 Republicans opposed the measure.