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WASHINGTON - The Senate insisted Thursday on opening up the Arctic National Wildlife refuge for drilling after being blocked by environmentalists for decades, then voted overwhelmingly to prohibit exporting any of the oil pumped from the region.
With a 51-48 vote, the Senate approved requiring the Interior Department to begin selling oil leases for the coastal plain of the Alaska refuge within two years.
Repeated attempts to approve such drilling have failed in the Senate because drilling supporters were unable to muster the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster by opponents. This year, drilling supporters attached language ending the ban on drilling in the refuge to a budget measure that is immune from filibuster.
Opening the refuge, which was set aside for protection 44 years ago, has been one of President Bush's top energy priorities.
Bush, in Argentina for a two-day summit, hailed the vote.
"Increasing our domestic energy supply will help lower gasoline prices and utility bills," he said in a statement. "We can and should produce more crude oil here at home in environmentally responsible ways. The most promising site for oil in America is a 2,000-acre site in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and thanks to technology, we can reach this energy with little impact on the land or wildlife."
Bush and other drilling advocates argue that the country needs the estimated 10.5 billion barrels of oil that are believed to lie beneath the refuges coastal tundra in northeastern Alaska and slow the growing dependence on oil imports. The United States now uses about 7.3 billion barrels of oil a year.
"America needs this American oil," said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. He called opposition to pumping the refuge's oil "ostrich-like" and said the refuge's reserves are "crucial to the nation's attempt to achieve energy independence."
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who led the effort to continue the ban, called drilling in the refuge a gimmick that will have little effect on oil or gasoline prices, or U.S. energy security.
"Using backdoor tactics to destroy America's last great wild frontier will not solve our nation's energy problems and will do nothing to lower skyrocketing gas prices" Cantwell argued.
The House is considering a measure that also includes a provision to open ANWR to oil companies. It cleared the Budget Committee on Thursday but has garnered so much opposition for various reasons that House leaders are thinking about jettisoning the contentious refuge drilling section.
The Senate's decision to keep the provision in its bill "gives us a little more flexibility," said Acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Mo. A decision on ANWR would then be made when the House and Senate try to mesh their two budgets.
Meanwhile, the Senate in an 86-13 vote, required that none of the oil from ANWR be exported. Otherwise "there is no assurance that even one drop of Alaskan oil will get to hurting Americans," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a drilling opponent who nevertheless sponsored the no-export provision. He co-sponsored the amendment with Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., who strongly supports drilling there.
Drilling supporters argued that ANWR will give the country more domestic oil production, so fewer barrels will have to be imported. Today about 60 percent of the oil used in the United States is imported.
But no oil is likely to flow from ANWR for 10 years and peak production of about 1 million barrels a day isn't expected until about 2025, according to the Energy Department. Currently, the United States used about 20 million barrels of oil a day.
Environmentalists have cited a report by DOE's Energy Information Administration that concluded that ANWR oil would only slightly affect gasoline prices and marginally lower the growth of imports by 2025, when imported oil would account for 64 percent of U.S. demand instead of 68 percent without ANWR's oil.
Environmentalists said drilling platforms and a spider web of roads and pipelines will threaten the ecology of the refuge's coastal plain which is used by caribou, polar bears, musk oxen and millions of migratory birds that land there during warmer parts of the year.