WASHINGTON A dispute over oil drilling in an Arctic wildlife refuge is blocking energy legislation and prompting the White House to link the debate to national security and the September terrorist attacks.
That has some Democrats in Congress and environmentalists accusing the Bush administration and Republicans of exploiting terrorist fears to allow drilling in an area where oil won't actually be pumped for a decade.
"It's in our national interest that we develop more energy supplies at home," President Bush told business leaders recently, demanding that the Senate take up energy legislation "and get a bill to my desk" before Congress adjourns for the year.
Opening the Arctic refuge for oil development remains key to "an independent energy policy for America," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. He noted the House already has approved energy legislation, including drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR.
But in the Senate, an energy bill that six months ago was viewed as a priority has slipped to the back burner, eclipsed by the response to the Sept. 11 attacks and the slumping economy.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a North Dakota Democrat, has put energy legislation on hold, telling reporters: "The most important focus for us now is the economic recovery plan, the airport security plan and the appropriations bills."
It's clear that energy "is an issue that Democratic leaders want to duck for now," Sen. Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican, contended.
Sen. Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said the reason is the Arctic refuge. He believes he has the 51 votes needed to lift a 1980 congressional ban on developing the Alaska refuge's millions of barrels of oil.
Key Democrats, however, have promised environmentalists they will protect the refuge. That includes, if necessary, blocking a vote with a filibuster a parliamentary tactic that requires proponents of a measure to have 60 votes to limit debate.
Any debate is likely to be quarrelsome and disruptive, with each side trying to wrap itself in patriotism and hurling accusations at the other. It's a showdown Daschle would like to avoid.
"This is a critical dividing-line issue," said Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, who has pledged to lead such a filibuster. Among those expected to join in are Democratic Sens. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Hillary Clinton of New York and John Wyden of Oregon, he said.
The events of Sept. 11 and their aftermath have not changed the debate over ANWR, Kerry said. Drilling there "will do nothing to enhance our national security at this moment in time," he said in a recent interview.
Murkowski, contending that oil can be taken from the refuge without endangering the environment, called it a matter of "our national security, as opposed to environmental extremists."
To press the point, he brought representatives from a number of veterans organizations to Capitol Hill last week to deride as one wrote Daschle "the heavy reliance of the United States on foreign oil."
Bush administration officials have stressed the same point.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton called recently for action on energy at a Capitol Hill news conference, in a speech to an oil conference in Louisiana and in letters to radio talk show hosts.
"Every day the United States imports 700,000 barrels of oil from (Iraq's) Saddam Hussein. ... It's time to start producing that energy in the United States," Norton wrote the radio hosts, volunteering to discuss the issue if invited.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, bemoaned "the almost obsessive attention" focused on the Arctic refuge at the expense of other energy matters.
There are other places in Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico where domestic oil resources have been ignored, he said. Growth in energy demand "will overwhelm any future domestic production even if ANWR were opened," he added.
The government estimates that at least 5.7 billion barrels and possibly as many as 16 billion barrels may be recoverable from the refuge, although how much will be pumped will depend on the price of oil. Environmentalists argue that ANWR has no more than 3.2 billion barrels, not enough to dramatically ease the country's reliance on imports.
"Drilling the Arctic refuge for a speculative six months supply of oil 10 years from now will not do anything to enhance our energy security," said Adam Kolton of the Alaska Wilderness League. He called the national security drumbeat "an attempt to exploit the tragedy of Sept. 11" to overcome opposition to opening the refuge.