FAIRBANKS - The U.S. House likely will vote this week on the simple question of whether to drill for oil in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
It will mark the first time the House has confronted the ANWR question alone, rather than part of other legislation, since Congress created the refuge in its current form in 1980.
The vote, which could happen as early as Wednesday, is expected to come during floor debate on a larger energy bill created in the Republican-led House committees during the past month.
The energy bill contains language that would open ANWR's coastal plain to oil drilling. Reps. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Nancy Johnson, a Connecticut Republican, are expected to push an amendment, in a separate vote, to remove that language.
"We're very optimistic that we'll prevail," Adam Kolton, Arctic campaign director for the Alaska Wilderness League, told the Washington, D.C. bureau of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. The group opposes oil drilling in the refuge.
But Kolton was concerned about how the House Rules Committee will structure the allowable motions on the floor. The committee meets today to adopt the energy bill and set the rules.
"There are all kind of things the leadership could do with the rule that could create ambiguity," he said.
Roger Herrera, Washington representative of the pro-drilling Arctic Power group, said he didn't have any doubt that the Rules Committee would allow a straightforward vote on the amendment.
"My understanding is that the rules that the leadership has agreed to give people a fair chance," he said. "It will be an up and down vote."
Herrera, hoping to keep the ANWR-opening language in the bill, pinned his hopes on President Bush. He said Bush must call Republicans who are likely to defect from the GOP-leadership's pro-drilling stance.
"If the president makes some calls ... then I suspect we will prevail," Herrera said. "If he doesn't, then it will be a toss up."
Herrera said the White House has promised to help.
"The president communicates with members of Congress frequently," said Ken Lisaius, White House spokesman for Western regions. But he said he did not know whether Bush was talking up ANWR.
Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles is lobbying the House through a letter.
"I urge you to be guided by the substance of the issue rather than the symbolism associated with ANWR," Knowles wrote in the draft version of a letter he planned to send today to every U.S. House member.
"In doing so, I believe you will conclude, as I have, that environmentally responsible development of ANWR is an essential component of a balanced national energy policy which also includes conservation, alternative fuels and fuel efficiency," the governor said.
Knowles' draft letter stresses benefits to the U.S. economy as well as his stand that the coastal plain can be developed in an environmentally safe manner.
"The more than 20 years' experience on Alaska's North Slope provides strong evidence that oil development at nearby ANWR poses little threat to the coastal plain's ecology," Knowles said, citing population growth of the Central Arctic Caribou Herd in the Prudhoe Bay area.
Knowles also emphasized that the Inupiat of the North Slope are among the strongest proponents of drilling in the coastal plain.
The Teamsters will start airing radio ads this week in favor of drilling in ANWR. The campaign aligns the union with the Bush administration and sets it apart from much of organized labor.
The 60-second spots will air on radio stations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia this week. The ads will cost at least $20,000, said Teamsters spokesman Rob Black.
Pennsylvania and West Virginia were selected because of the impact energy exploration could have on their economies, union officials said. More than 200 businesses in those states are involved in Alaska petroleum exploration.
The ads say that opening the refuge could mean 75,000 new jobs - "Good jobs, union jobs" - with 40,000 of those in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Listeners are urged to call their representatives.
Associated Press labor writer Leigh Strope contributed to this report.