ANWR drilling backers pare bill in hopes of winning

Posted: Tuesday, October 25, 2005

FAIRBANKS - A small paragraph disappeared this month from the last page of a U.S. Senate proposal to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

The paragraph, a nonbinding request that unions and oil companies sign an agreement for work in the refuge, has been part of most drilling proposals for years.

Senators who back ANWR drilling killed the language. They made the sacrifice to satisfy Senate budget bill procedures.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved drilling language Wednesday in a budget "reconciliation" bill, a measure designed to reconcile federal law with the federal budget plan adopted last spring. Pro-drilling senators chose the method because reconciliation bills can pass the Senate with a simple majority of 51 votes.

Other attempts to pass ANWR on standard legislation have drawn threats of filibusters. Filibusters require 60 votes to shut down, and that's more votes than the pro-drilling camp can count on.

The reconciliation bill poses challenges of its own.

When it reaches the Senate floor sometime in early November, it will be subject to a rule crafted in 1985 by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V.

The Byrd rule says any provision not related to federal revenues can be killed by any senator who successfully raises a "point of order."

With an eye on the Byrd rule, pro-drilling senators trimmed their 30-page ANWR proposal to six pages, leaving out clearly non-revenue provisions.

That drew criticism from the committee's top Democrat.

"There are no minimum royalty rates, there are no enforcement provisions, there are no required inspections, there are no limits on the size or duration of leases, no requirement that operation plans be approved," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.

Still, the proposal comprises much more than "thou shalt drill," and that poses a potential conflict with the Byrd rule.

For example, the language would "deem" that a leasing program is compatible with the purposes of the refuge. It also declares that a 1987 environmental impact statement is adequate to let the Interior Department start writing up a leasing program, and any updated impact statement could only analyze two options - both that must include drilling.

The language requires lawsuits to be filed within 90 days of any action. Finally, it would limit oil development's "footprint" to 2,000 acres.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said the limitations on environmental and judicial reviews are clearly related to ANWR's revenue potential and so shouldn't be "Byrdable." The federal budget plan calls for about $2.5 billion in new revenue by 2010.

"To get the revenues that we were required to raise in the Energy Committee, the $2.5 (billion), we have got to have leases sold and moving and revenue into the treasury within the time frames that have been set out in the legislation," she said. "If you have to start all over with a brand new EIS, you are not getting to that available revenue."

That's also why Murkowski helped defeat an amendment Bingaman proposed to further strip the bill by removing all language streamlining environmental and judicial reviews.

Under Bingaman's amendment "you literally begin from ground zero" with such things as environmental reviews, she said.

Mike Steeves, a staff attorney with the environmental law group Trustees for Alaska, disputed Murkowski's assertion that streamlining is necessary. The Minerals Management Service, he said, has proven the point with recent offshore leasing work in Alaska.

"They did a programmatic EIS, a separate EIS on each sale and completed two sales, all within 312 years," Steeves said after the committee meeting. "Why can't it happen on the Arctic refuge?"

Peter Van Tuyn, an Anchorage attorney and the Trustees' former executive director, said Republicans want to limit reviews for another reason.

"This program is to hide the environmental effects" of drilling in ANWR.

Murkowski also argues that the 2,000-acre limit is revenue-related and therefore should survive a Byrd rule challenge.

Murkowski said the reconciliation bill could hit the Senate floor by the first week of November. That's when she and other drilling supporters will see whether their work satisfies Senate Parliamentarian Alan Frumin. He could be asked by any senator to offer an opinion on whether the ANWR language satisfies the Byrd rule.

Frumin does not have the final say. The Senate's presiding officer will either accept or reject Frumin's reading, Van Tuyn said

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